With Quint Forgey and help from Andrew Desiderio
Welcome to the penultimate edition of the premier week (aka edition four) 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.
Yes, the Biden administration decided to let Nord Stream 2 get built. No, Sen. TED CRUZ (R-Texas) won’t lift his holds on a slew of State Department nominees ready for confirmation.
In an exclusive interview on the 764-mile-long pipeline, the lawmaker said he will still block the administration from building out its diplomatic team until it imposes congressionally mandated sanctions on the companies constructing the pipeline.
Secretary of State ANTONY BLINKEN “has repeatedly said their waiver of sanctions can be rescinded. Well, good. He’s laid out the path forward: Rescind the waiver and actually follow the law,” Cruz said in his Senate office. “And when they rescind the waiver, I will happily lift my holds. State has it within their power to lift the holds any time they want.”
The problem for Cruz is that time for waivers has come and gone: President JOE BIDEN has already made his deal with Germany, and keeping those sanctions off the pipeline is a key component of it. The senator’s holds on the State nominees didn’t get the administration to reverse course — in fact, one prominent nominee got through thanks to maneuvers by Senate Majority Leader CHUCK SCHUMER — and after repeated questioning, Cruz couldn’t detail a new move to pressure the White House.
Still, he insists Biden’s Nord Stream decision is so historically wrong that nothing but a complete 180-degree turnaround will get him to change his mind. “I believe, if they continue down this path, this will be on the order of magnitude of Jimmy Carter’s giving away the Panama Canal. That, five decades later, remains a spectacular loss for U.S. foreign policy, because a Democratic president was too weak to stand up for our interests. I think Biden and [Vice President KAMALA] HARRIS’ decision on Nord Stream 2 is at that level of magnitude.”
It’s this kind of rhetoric that has many on Capitol Hill, namely Democrats, thinking Cruz is using the Nord Stream 2 issue for his own political gain. There’s no question the Texan championed this issue before Biden entered the White House and worked behind the scenes to pass legislation to mandate sanctions. But staffers who NatSec Daily spoke with say he’s leveraging the president’s position on the pipeline purely for notoriety.
“He’s catering to [former President DONALD] TRUMP’s base by accusing Biden of being weak on Russia,” one senior Senate Democratic aide said. Another commented: “Biden’s f—up on Nord Stream 2 gave [Cruz] the opening he wanted.”
With Cruz, as with many politicians, it’s hard to know where conviction ends and ambition begins.
“Come Jan. 20, 2025 the next president — I believe the next Republican president — will reimpose the sanctions on this pipeline,” he said. “That means that a European company that thinks they can get along with facilitating this pipeline is facing the sword of Damocles when you no longer have a White House that just capitulates to Russia.”
When I asked if it will be Cruz leading that White House in four years, he paused with a chuckle before replying: “Time will tell.”
BREAKING FROM POLITICO — U.S. AND IRAQ TO ANNOUNCE SHIFT IN MILITARY ROLE: Our own LARA SELIGMAN has the scoop: “U.S. and Iraqi officials are finalizing a shift in the U.S. military mission in Iraq to a purely advisory role by the end of the year, marking the official end of the U.S. combat mission in the country, according to a U.S. official and two people familiar with the issue,” she reported today. “Under the plan, which the people stressed will not constitute a withdrawal of American forces from the country, a number of U.S. service members will remain in Iraq indefinitely. These troops will provide logistics and advisory support, as well as air power, intelligence and surveillance capability in the fight against the Islamic State, which this week claimed responsibility for a suicide attack in Baghdad that left dozens dead.”
NS2 DEAL A “BETRAYAL”: RADEK SIKORSKI, the former top Polish official and current EU Parliament member, says his region is raging over the Nord Stream 2 pact between the U.S. and Germany. “It’s viewed as a betrayal in Eastern Europe,” he told NatSec Daily in the lobby of his D.C. hotel.
Poland, Ukraine and others see the Russian natural gas pipeline as a clear win for Moscow. That Washington and Berlin made the deal showed little regard for Central and Eastern European interests, he argued.
Sikorski is in town with a European delegation to meet with U.S. officials — and surely give an earful to his American counterparts.
Biden, for his part, defended the agreement his administration brokered with Chancellor ANGELA MERKEL’s government on Nord Stream 2 late last night. Speaking to reporters on an airport tarmac outside Cincinnati, the president explained that the pipeline “is 99 percent finished.”
“The idea that anything that was going to be said or done was going to stop it was not possible,” he said.
BIDEN’S CUBA RESPONSE GETS SOME TEETH: The U.S. has slapped targeted individual sanctions on a Cuban military leader and a government entity — extending the Magnitsky Act penalties originally passed to punish Russian government oppression and then broadened to include countries such as Venezuela.
In a statement announcing the sanctions — first reported by our own MARC CAPUTO and SABRINA RODRIGUEZ — Biden condemned “the mass detentions and sham trials that are unjustly sentencing to prison those who dared to speak out in an effort to intimidate and threaten the Cuban people into silence.”
“This is just the beginning,” the president said, pledging that the U.S. “will continue to sanction individuals responsible for oppression of the Cuban people.”
The Treasury Department this afternoon added two new entries to the Office of Foreign Assets Control’s list of Specially Designated Nationals: 77-year-old ÁLVARO LÓPEZ MIERA, minister of Cuba’s Revolutionary Armed Forces, and the Brigada Especial Nacional del Ministerio del Interior, or the Cuban government’s Interior Ministry Special Brigade.
Cuban American activists, Republican lawmakers and conservative commentators had loudly criticized Biden in recent days for declining to take more forceful action since the July 11 uprisings on the island.
But the latest sanctions — accompanied by measures to bring increased internet access to Cuba and calls for more international pressure on the totalitarian government — “is huge,” said SASHA TIRADOR, a top Miami political operative who was briefed on the administration’s plans last night.
“No administration has ever announced that they will hold each individual who violates human rights on the island of Cuba accountable,” she said.
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NORTH KOREA’S NUKE COUNT: Researchers HANS KRISTENSEN and MATT KORDA, writing for the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, are doing the math on North Korea’s nuclear arsenal.
The two experts “cautiously estimate that North Korea might have produced sufficient fissile material to build 40 to 50 nuclear weapons and that it might possibly have assembled 10 to 20 warheads for delivery by medium-range ballistic missiles.”
That number is pretty much in line with other estimates of Pyongyang’s arsenal — which continues to grow. So far, North Korea has given the Biden administration the cold shoulder, and any meaningful dialogue on denuclearization with Washington just isn’t happening.
HONG KONG ACTIVISTS PLEAD FOR HELP: A group of Hong Kong pro-democracy activists currently living in exile have sent a letter to Congress imploring U.S. lawmakers to pass legislation granting refugee status to Hong Kong citizens with “well-founded fears of persecution” by the territory’s authorities, our own PHELIM KINE reports.
The letter calls on Congress to grant Priority 2 Refugee Status to Hong Kong’s peaceful pro-democracy protesters seeking resettlement, Temporary Protection Status to Hong Kong citizens already in the U.S. and an extension of visas “to high-skilled Hong Kong residents with an associate degree or above.”
U.S. lawmakers must act quickly, the letter states, as the Hong Kong government is “closing travel routes” for citizens fearful of government reprisals for peaceful protest. As of Aug. 1, a new law goes into effect that would allow for exit bans on government critics.
FRANCE FINGERS CHINA FOR CYBERATTACK: The French cybersecurity agency ANSSI released a statement today formally blaming a “large intrusion campaign” on a hacking group called APT31 that’s known to be operating in China, per our own VINCENT MANANCOURT.
In addition to allegedly targeting the “numerous French entities,” the U.S. this week named APT31 as one of several Chinese government-linked groups behind a major attack on Microsoft Exchange servers. The European Union said the group was operating from the territory of China, without explicitly linking it to the state.
AUSTIN REBOOTS PENTAGON BOARDS: Defense Secretary LLOYD AUSTIN plans to restart five major Pentagon advisory boards — the same ones he dissolved in February amid an effort to root out Trump loyalists, reports Lara Seligman.
Days after his confirmation in February, Austin fired the members of 31 defense advisory boards and directed the immediate suspension of operations for all 42 of the Pentagon’s panels, pending a “zero-based review” of the Defense Department’s boards and commissions.
Now, Austin is expected to restore the five major panels — which focus on policy, science, business, innovation and health — after he looks over the recommendations of the committee that conducted the review. The new membership of the reconstituted boards is likely to be more diverse, although some of the prior members are expected to be renominated.
LINKING UP WITH LOCKHEED: Lockheed Martin CEO JIM TAICLET, in an interview with Defense One’s MARCUS WEISGERBER, laid out plans for his company — the world’s biggest defense contractor — to help the Pentagon start digitally connecting all its weapons on the battlefield.
The Defense Department has already embraced a connect-everything approach. In May, the top brass signed off on the Joint All-Domain Command and Control strategy, which aims to link weapons systems and sensors from all of the military services into a single network. Now, Taiclet says he believes companies should assist in writing the technical standards for the Pentagon’s effort.
HOUSE HASTENS VETTING FOR AFGHAN ALLIES: The House this morning approved a measure to streamline the vetting process for Afghan nationals seeking refuge in the U.S., our own ANDREW DESIDERIO tells us. The overwhelming 407-16 vote comes amid bipartisan pressure on the Biden administration to ensure that the Afghans who aided the U.S. war effort as translators and interpreters are sufficiently protected from the rapidly advancing Taliban.
Evacuation flights for Afghan nationals are scheduled to begin later this month, but the administration is still working to find additional third countries willing to temporarily house the applicants, pending final approval of their visas.
The House bill, dubbed the Allies Act, eliminates some steps of the vetting process in order to accelerate the Afghans’ formal admission into the U.S. The legislation now heads to the Senate, and the White House has indicated that Biden will sign if it reaches his desk.
OUT WITH THE OLD: Air Force and Navy leaders defended their push to divest almost $3 billion worth of planes and ships in an appearance before a Senate subcommittee yesterday, according to CQ Roll Call’s ANDREW CLEVENGER.
Lt. Gen. DAVID NAHOM, the Air Force’s deputy chief of staff for plans and programs, and Vice Admiral JAMES KILBY, deputy chief of naval operations for warfighting requirements and capabilities, teamed up to argue that retiring the assets was necessary to invest in future capabilities and to get rid of equipment well past its service life.
But both Democratic and Republican lawmakers seemed hesitant to embrace the plan, which is part of the Defense Department’s budget request. “There’s not a member of this committee that doesn’t get pressure from other members who serve in the Senate to keep some of these systems,” said Sen. JON TESTER (D-Mont.).
AND IN WITH THE NEW: Meanwhile, on the House side of the Capitol, U.S. Special Operations Command Gen. RICHARD CLARKE testified about SOCOM’s bid to buy 75 new armed overwatch aircraft — with the goal of replacing an aging Air Force fleet and helping meet a global demand for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, per Air Force Magazine’s BRIAN EVERSTINE.
Congress previously blocked SOCOM from procuring armed overwatch aircraft in the latest National Defense Authorization Act, but it allowed the command to continue with demonstrations. In May, SOCOM awarded $19.2 million to five companies for prototypes as part of the effort.
“LITTLE ACTION” BACKING UP “TOUGH BIDEN TALK”: The Wall Street Journal’s right-leaning editorial board is livid with the president’s handling of foreign affairs this week, arguing his tough-guy rhetoric hasn’t matched his decisions on Nord Stream 2 and China.
As for the controversial pipeline, “the Biden Administration has now blessed the project’s completion, handing Vladimir Putin a major strategic victory at the expense of Ukraine and Europe’s energy independence.”
And on the lack of public retribution for China’s hacking and cyberattacks, the editorial board argues that a joint statement with Europeans isn’t enough: “The allied powers announced no sanctions or other repercussions. A coalition against Chinese cyber attacks is nice, but not if the result is a lowest-common-denominator response — i.e., nothing. Beijing may conclude that harsh words are all the U.S. can unite its allies behind.”
ACTIVISTS WARY OF BIDEN’S WAR ON DOMESTIC TERROR: According to our own BETSY WOODRUFF SWAN, civil liberty advocates are warning that the administration’s efforts to root out extremism within the U.S. could produce a litany of unintended consequences — including a chilling effect on various forms of protest and undue government scrutiny of tens of millions of Americans.
The debate presents a challenging political dynamic for an administration seeking to appeal to progressives while also strengthening its domestic counterterror work across the board.
“Our domestic terrorism strategy and its implementation are laser-focused on violence and threats of violence that threaten public safety and national security,” said a senior administration official, “not constitutionally protected advocacy and freedom of expression in support of political views, whatever they may be.”
But CHIP GIBBONS, the policy director at Defending Rights and Dissent, framed Biden’s approach in another way: “It will have collateral consequences.”
ROSE MAXED OUT: MAX ROSE, a senior adviser on Covid-19 in the Pentagon, announced he was leaving his post. “It was an honor to work alongside so many heroes who turned the tide against the Pandemic here at home,” he tweeted. It’s unclear what he’ll do next, but he said he looks forward to “some family time & the next chapter.”
DOD’S TOP ASIA HAND LEAVES: DEREK HELVEY has left the Pentagon earlier after leading its Indo-Pacific policy shop. He’s now a senior adviser at the U.S. Mission to NATO, Foreign Policy’s JACK DETSCH reports. Previously a member of the Obama and Trump administrations, Helvey took charge of one of DOD’s most vital policy portfolios and proved himself useful to SecDef Austin. “Even though Helvey was not expected to stay for the long term, he had worked closely with Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, serving at his side during the Pentagon leader’s first overseas trip to Japan, South Korea, India, and Afghanistan in March,” Detsch wrote.
Foreign Affairs: “Pakistan’s Pyrrhic Victory in Afghanistan”
Foreign Policy: “Get Ready for a Spike in Global Unrest”
The New Yorker: “Is Cuba’s Communist Party Finally Losing Its Hold on the Country?”
— SecDef Austin departs on a trip to Alaska, Singapore, Hanoi and Manila: He’ll “meet with key leaders to reaffirm defense relationships and conduct bilateral meetings with senior officials,” per the Pentagon.
— The Heritage Foundation, 11 a.m.: “How Congress Can Help America Get More Out of Our Defense Dollars”
— Hudson Institute, 12 p.m.: “Transforming Defense for a Competitive Era”
— The Brookings Institution, 12:30 p.m.: “Transatlantic data flows: What’s next after the EU-U.S. Privacy Shield?”
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