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The U.S. on Monday warned of a “debris-generating event” in space amid reports that Russia blew up one of its satellites over the weekend, and said it was coordinating with other countries to help ensure the safety of their equipment in orbit, Quint and our own PAUL MCLEARY reported today.
“Earlier today, the Russian Federation recklessly conducted a destructive satellite test of a direct ascent anti-satellite missile against one of its own satellites,” State Department spokesperson NED PRICE told reporters. “The test has so far generated over 1,500 pieces of trackable, orbital debris and hundreds of thousands of pieces of smaller orbital debris that now threaten the interests of all nations,” said Price, adding that “this test will significantly increase the risk to astronauts and cosmonauts on the International Space Station, as well as to other human spaceflight activities.”
The seven astronauts aboard the International Space Station had to take shelter in their spacecraft transports as they will pass through the debris field roughly every 90 minutes, experts said. But Roscosmos, Russia’s space agency, downplayed that event: “The orbit of the object, which forced the crew today to move into spacecraft according to standard procedures, has moved away from the ISS orbit,” it posted on Twitter.
Before State’s announcement, NORSS, a United Kingdom-based space tracking organization, tweeted that Russia was the culprit, saying the test was “against a Tselina-D SIGINT satellite Kosmos-1408 … occurring in the early hours of 15/11/2021.” The group says its worst-case estimate is that 1561 pieces of additional debris would enter low-earth orbit. Analysts noted the Tseline-D was a large, roughly 4,440-pound spacecraft.
National security-focused staffers on Capitol Hill weren’t made aware of the test before they saw reports in the media. Some first heard about it from NatSec Daily when asking for comment.
In a separate briefing, Pentagon spokesperson JOHN KIRBY said Russia provided no advance warning of the test, calling it “an irresponsible act.”
One unnamed official told CNN that Russian forces launched a ground-based missile at the satellite — a capability only a handful of countries have successfully demonstrated, including the U.S. India conducted an anti-satellite missile test in 2019, for example, and China launched one back in 2007.
But this move seems timed to further raise tensions between Washington and Moscow, especially since Russia still has a mass of troops and military equipment on Ukraine’s border.
“The United States will work with our allies and partners to respond to Russia’s irresponsible act,” Price said.
WHAT TO EXPECT WHEN YOU’RE EXPECTING BIDEN-XI: Our own China watcher PHELIM KINE says to keep your expectations of the virtual summit this evening between President JOE BIDEN and Chinese leader XI JINPING down — way down.
“As the two leaders prepare for their first substantial meeting of the Biden presidency, bilateral messaging downplaying the event’s ambitions as well as a mutual decision to keep its agenda under wraps reflect efforts to lower public expectations of a significant rapprochement or big deliverables,” he wrote. “But beyond performative goodwill gestures, people familiar with the upcoming meeting say, both leaders will likely seek agreement on a handful of short- and medium-term initiatives developed by bilateral working groups to reduce frictions, while signaling alignment on wider geopolitical concerns including North Korea and Iran.”
That approach echoes a statement Friday by a senior administration official who emphasized the meeting “is not about seeking deliverables, or outcomes … [but about] setting the terms of an effective competition,” Kine reported.
Traditionally, such meetings end with a series of agreements and a new pathway forward for the relationship. But in this era of competition, just talking — in an effort to avert disaster — is the administration’s true deliverable.
First in NatSec Daily: National security adviser JAKE SULLIVAN will provide a readout of the Biden-Xi summit tomorrow at 10 a.m. at the Brookings Institution. Retired Gen. JOHN ALLEN, Brookings’ president, will moderate the conversation which will be followed by a panel discussion.
U.S. HID CIVILIAN DEATHS IN SYRIA: The story of the weekend in NatSec Daily’s eyes was a New York Times investigation exposing how the U.S. hid about 70 civilian deaths after an airstrike in Syria.
“The Baghuz strike was one of the largest civilian casualty incidents of the war against the Islamic State, but it has never been publicly acknowledged by the U.S. military” even though “the death toll was almost immediately apparent to military officials,” DAVE PHILIPPS and ERIC SCHMITT reported. “A legal officer flagged the strike as a possible war crime that required an investigation. But at nearly every step, the military made moves that concealed the catastrophic strike. The death toll was downplayed. Reports were delayed, sanitized and classified. United States-led coalition forces bulldozed the blast site. And top leaders were not notified.”
Not even the Pentagon’s inspector general did its job to investigate the March 18, 2019 strike. “The Defense Department’s independent inspector general began an inquiry, but the report containing its findings was stalled and stripped of any mention of the strike,” the reporters wrote.
This is yet another story of a U.S. military unwilling to be transparent about the number of civilians it kills during wars. It was only after another NYT report that the Pentagon admitted to killing 10 civilians — including seven children — this year in Afghanistan.
AUSTRALIA WOULD SIDE WITH U.S. IN TAIWAN WAR: Australia’s defense chief said it was “inconceivable” that his country wouldn’t join the U.S. in a war to defend Taiwan.
“It would be inconceivable that we wouldn’t support the US in an action if the US chose to take that action,” Defense Minister PETER DUTTON told The Australian newspaper in a weekend interview, noting that China has been “very clear about their intent to go into Taiwan.”
It’s still unclear if Biden would send American troops to avenge the island in case of a Chinese-launched invasion. He’s made such a commitment on three separate occasions, only to have his team walk his comments back each time. But having Canberra on Washington’s side in case a still-unlikely war breaks out might make the calculation easier.
IT’S MONDAY: Thanks for tuning in to NatSec Daily. This space is reserved for the top U.S. and foreign officials, the lawmakers, the lobbyists, the experts and the people like you who care about how the natsec sausage gets made. Aim your tips and comments at [email protected] and [email protected], and follow us on Twitter at @alexbward and @QuintForgey.
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AMERICAN JOURNALIST RELEASED FROM MYANMAR: DANNY FENSTER, a 37-year-old Michigan native and managing editor of the online magazine Frontier Myanmar, has been released from prison in Myanmar, where he was detained for more than five months in the aftermath of a military coup.
Fenster had been denied bail and held in the infamous Insein Prison in Yangon, the country’s biggest city. His release comes just days after a military court dealt him an 11-year prison sentence with hard labor — finding Fenster guilty of spreading false or inflammatory information, contacting illegal organizations and violating visa regulations.
BILL RICHARDSON — the former member of Congress, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Energy secretary and New Mexico governor — facilitated Fenster’s release. According to The Richardson Center for Global Engagement, the journalist’s freedom “was secured following a private humanitarian visit” by Richardson to Myanmar and “face-to-face negotiations” with Gen. MIN AUNG HLAING, the commander in chief of Myanmar’s military who is now ruling the country.
FBI LOOKING INTO CYBERATTACK EMAILS: Our friends over at Weekly Cybersecurity reported on the FBI’s no good, very bad, terrible hacker weekend.
“Several private sector cybersecurity officials at businesses woke up Saturday to a frightening, but fake alert: The FBI is investigating a sophisticated chain attack,’ and everyone is vulnerable. But here’s the thing: the message was fake and sent by hackers who gained access to the bureau’s email system — underscoring the critical vulnerabilities that still exist in federal systems nearly a year after the discovery of the SolarWinds cyberespionage campaign,” SAM SABIN wrote.
“The FBI has provided several updates over the weekend about the incident. While the investigation is still ongoing, the FBI said it has warned its partners about the fake messages and ‘quickly remediated the software vulnerability’ and ‘confirmed the integrity of [its] networks,’” Sabin continued. “The bureau also said that no data or personal information was compromised in the hack. CISA Director JEN EASTERLY also said the agency is ‘aware of this incident’ and stands ‘ready to support as needed.’”
CHINA SECRETLY BOUGHT ITALIAN DRONE MAKER: A Chinese state-controlled company bought an Italian drone-making firm back in 2018 — and Italian and European authorities had no clue about the move. That’s a problem, as the move secretly transferred considerable drone-manufacturing know-how to China under everyone’s noses.
“Italian authorities are investigating the 2018 takeover of Alpi Aviation Srl by a Hong Kong-registered company that they say is a front for the Chinese state and was in the process of transferring the company’s technical and intellectual property to a new production site in China,” the Wall Street Journal’s JAMES MARSON and GIOVANNI LEGORANO reported. “The takeover fits a pattern, analysts say, of Chinese state firms using ostensibly private shell companies as fronts to snap up firms with specific technologies that they then shift to new facilities in China.”
The news exposes a constant sore spot for the European Union. The bloc wants to stop takeovers and investments that threaten its national security, but the responsibility for acquisitions ultimately falls to national governments. What’s more, companies have to report their own foreign takeovers, which clearly didn’t happen in this case until officials stumbled upon the China connection in a separate probe.
SENATE TO TAKE ON CHINA BILL: A bill long delayed in the House to enhance competition with China seems poised to pass Congress in the must-pass National Defense Authorization Act, or NDAA.
Per our friends at Morning Defense (for Pros!), Senate Majority Leader CHUCK SCHUMER “said the Senate may incorporate into the NDAA the United States Innovation and Competition Act (USICA), stalled legislation to beef up the U.S. competitive edge against China, to expedite its passage,” they wrote, citing a letter Schumer sent to colleagues on Sunday.
“There seems to be fairly broad support for doing so, which would enable a USICA negotiation with the House to be completed alongside NDAA before the end of the year,” Schumer wrote. “The funding and policies included in USICA will help alleviate the supply chain challenges facing our small business and consumers on a daily basis, making its passage this year critical.”
Many progressives don’t like the USICA because they say it unfairly demonizes Chinese people, and not the government, which is why they and others formulated their own version of the legislation — the EAGLE Act. But they’d be hard pressed to tank the Senate version in the NDAA due to the tough politics of blocking funding for America’s defenses.
MATT POTTINGER, who was the deputy national security adviser to former President DONALD TRUMP, told NatSec Daily he wants to see USICA pass because of the semiconductor component.
“It’s an odd situation: There’s a bipartisan consensus on the Hill and across administrations that Beijing is the primary national security challenge, yet we haven’t seen a major law get passed on the subject so far this year,” he said. “Support for domestic semiconductor manufacturing is essential if we don’t want to find ourselves checkmated by Beijing in critical high-tech sectors: autonomous systems, synthetic biology, quantum computing, you name it.”
HALEY ALREADY BLASTING BIDEN-XI SUMMIT: The leaders of the U.S. and China haven’t even met yet, but already former U.N. Ambassador NIKKI HALEY is sending out critical statements.
“President Biden’s failed foreign policy already has the world questioning his judgment. Anything short of defending Taiwan’s democracy, calling out China’s genocide, and demanding answers as to why China is funding the Ayatollah by importing Iranian oil is weakness,” the likely 2024 hopeful said in remarks sent by her team.
She’s also calling on the U.S. — and Biden — to boycott next year’s Beijing Olympics. “Attending sends a message that America is willing to turn a blind eye as Communist China commits genocide,” she said.
It’s hard to know in D.C. where someone’s conviction starts and ambition ends. With Haley, her China statements might be a mix of both.
— The president has nominated ELIZABETH RICHARD to serve as the State Department’s coordinator for counterterrorism and ROBERT STORCH to serve as inspector general at the Defense Department. Richard, a former U.S. ambassador to Lebanon, is currently a senior fellow on detail to Georgetown University. Storch is serving as inspector general for the National Security Agency.
— ERICA FEIN will soon join Rep. ANDY LEVIN’s (D-Mich.) office as the legislative director. She’s currently the senior Washington director for the Win Without War advocacy group.
— MORGAN FINKELSTEIN is now spokesperson for the Office of Terrorism and Financial Intelligence at the Treasury Department. She most recently was an advance associate at the White House. She also is an alum of the Biden Inaugural Committee and the Center for American Progress.
— KATIE COURIC, CHRIS KREBS and RASHAD ROBINSON, The Aspen Institute: “Commission on Information Disorder Final Report”
— CARA ANNA and DAVID KEYTON, The Associated Press: “‘You can’t even cry loudly’: Counting Ethiopia’s war dead”
— ANNE APPLEBAUM, The Atlantic: “The Bad Guys Are Winning”
— Chatham House, 8 a.m.: “Director’s Briefing: Developments in International Nuclear and Arms Security — with BONNIE JENKINS and ROBIN NIBLETT”
— The International Institute for Strategic Studies, 8:45 a.m.: “Western Responses to China’s Belt and Road Initiative — with NICHOLAS CRAWFORD, DAVID GORDON, MEIA NOUWENS, DAVID SACKS and TATSUYA TERAZAWA”
— The Center for Strategic and International Studies, 9 a.m.: “Lebanon’s Growing Humanitarian Crisis — with JON B. ALTERMAN, GEORGES KETTANEH, SALLY ABI KHALIL, JACOB KURTZER, HANEEN SAYED, WILL TODMAN and MAHA YAHYA”
— The Royal United Services Institute, 9 a.m.: “Qatar and Afghanistan: A Conversation with Ambassador Dr MUTLAQ AL-QAHTANI”
— The Wilson Center, 9:30 a.m.: “Global Perspectives: German-Russian Relations — with SABINE FISCHER and MATTHEW ROJANSKY”
— The Wilson Center, 9:30 a.m.: “The Pulse of Democracy in the Americas: Results from the 2021 AmericasBarometer Study — with ARIEL C. ARMONY, CYNTHIA J. ARNSON, ADRIANA CAMACHO, NOAM LUPU, PETER NATIELLO and ELIZABETH ZECHMEISTER”
— The Brookings Institution, 10 a.m.: “Readout from the Biden-Xi virtual meeting: Discussion with National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan — with JOHN ALLEN, SUZANNE MALONEY, RYAN HASS, JESSICA BRANDT, CHENG LI, and JOSHUA MELTZER“
— The Baker Institute for Public Policy, 10 a.m.: “Old Conflict, New Frameworks, Evolving Discourses: The Future of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict 30 Years After Madrid — with SAMIH AL-ABID, EDWARD P. DJEREJIAN, KHALED ELGINDY, LISE GRANDE, DANIEL C. KURTZER, LUCY KURTZER-ELLENBOGEN, GILEAD SHER, KRISTIAN COATES ULRICHSEN, LIMOR YEHUDA and HESHAM YOUSSEF”
— The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 10 a.m.: “Can China and India Get Back on Track? — with DARSHANA M. BARUAH, PAUL HAENLE and HAN HUA”
— House Foreign Affairs Committee, 10 a.m.: “Subcommittee Hearing: National Security Implications of Climate Change in the Arctic — with LUKE COFFEY, DALEE SAMBO DOROUGH, SUSAN M. NATALI and PAUL F. ZUKUNFT”
— The Wilson Center, 11 a.m.: “The American Passport in Turkey: National Citizenship in the Age of Transnationalism — with ÖZLEM ALTAN-OLCAY, EVREN BALTA, AMANDA FROST and ONUR ISCI”
— The Atlantic Council, 12 p.m.: “Fireside chat with Vice-Minister ALBINAS ZANANAVIČIUS — with RANDOLPH BELL and RICHARD L. MORNINGSTAR”
— The Center for Strategic and International Studies, 12 p.m.: “Book Event: Major General ARNOLD L. PUNARO’s ‘The Ever-Shrinking Fighting Force’ — with MARK F. CANCIAN, JOHN J. HAMRE, SAM NUNN, JEN STEWART and MAC THORNBERRY”
— The Hudson Institute, 12 p.m.: “Is a Nuclear Iran Inevitable? — with DAVID ALBRIGHT, JOSH BLOCK, OLLI HEINONEN”
— The Atlantic Council, 2 p.m.: “Grand Imam of Al-Azhar’s Historic Visit to Iraq: Significance and Implications — with MARSIN AL-SHAMARY, JUAN COLE, ABBAS KADHIM, OULA KADHUM and IMAM MOHAMED MAGID”
— House Foreign Affairs Committee, 2 p.m.: “Subcommittee Hearing: The Biden Administration’s Policy Priorities for Latin America and the Caribbean — with BRIAN NICHOLS”
— Senate Intelligence Committee, 2:30 p.m.: “Closed Briefing: Intelligence Matters”
— The Atlantic Council, 3 p.m.: “What Comes After Venezuela’s Regional Elections? — with DEYALITZA ARAY, LOUIS-PIERRE EMOND, EUGENIO MARTÍNEZ, KEVIN O’REILLY and MARIELA RAMÍREZ”
— The Center for a New American Security, 3 p.m.: “Mission Brief: Designing the Air Force America Needs with Lt. Gen. S. CLINTON HINOTE — with BECCA WASSER”
— The Foreign Policy Research Institute, 3 p.m.: “The Political Economy of Iraq: Restoring Balance in a Post-Conflict Society — with RONALD J. GRANIERI and FRANK R. GUNTER”
— The Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, 4:30 p.m.: “Pro-Democracy Movement in Africa: What’s Happening in Sudan? — with ILHAM ALI, AWAB ELMESBAH, NAFISA ELTAHIR, ISM’AIL KHUSKHUSH and ZOE MARKS”
— The Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, 4:30 p.m.: “There Is Nothing for You Here: Finding Opportunity in the Twenty-First Century — with GRAHAM T. ALLISON and FIONA HILL”
— New America, 8 p.m.: “A State of Surveillance in Mexico: A Conversation with ANDREA CHAPELA — with GALIA GARCÍA PALAFOX and EMILIO RIVAUD”
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’s a steely-eyed missile man.