With help from Lawrence Ukenye, Daniel Lippman, Phelim Kine and Nahal Toosi
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Your host was relaxing on Friday night until an email popped up at 11:35 pm: a statement by national security adviser JAKE SULLIVAN on the attempted killing of SALMAN RUSHDIE.
NatSec Daily wanted to know: Why was Sullivan issuing the administration’s first strong statement against the Friday attack? Was it a not-so-subtle message that a foreign government, possibly Iran, played a role in orchestrating it?
A National Security Council spokesperson wouldn’t elaborate when reached Saturday morning: “We’ll let the statement speak for itself.” Moments later, a senior U.S. official texted to say that NatSec Daily was overthinking it. “This is an event of international dimension,” the person asserted. Rushdie is “an international personality and the attack resonated for all kinds of reasons.”
OK, your host thought to himself, it’s back to watching the Premier League and enjoying the first D.C. weekend that wasn’t over 90 degrees. The plan was in motion until Vice World News’ MITCHELL PROTHERO reported Sunday that the accused assailant “had been in direct contact with members of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps on social media,” citing unnamed European and Middle Eastern intelligence officials.
Experts signaled that such contact was unlikely coincidental. “100 percent, of course Iran is behind it,” said VICTORIA COATES, who was the top Middle East official in the Trump administration’s National Security Council.
“The IRGC is a highly professional and stratified organization. It takes its orders from the leader. When it is involved in anything outside of Iran it has been approved at the highest levels of Iran’s regime. When the IRGC acts, Iran acts,” tweeted AFSHON OSTOVAR, a professor at the Naval Postgraduate School. “The regime is deliberate when it wants to kill people outside of Iran. That they aren’t very good at it doesn’t matter.”
NatSec Daily has yet to find anyone currently in the U.S. or any other government to confirm Vice’s story or say that Tehran was directly responsible. On Monday, a U.S. official told your host that “law enforcement has not established a motive yet,” saying that the most likely scenario is the alleged 24-year-old attacker deeply internalized years of Iran’s Rushdie hatred. NASSER KANAANI, a spokesperson for Iran’s Foreign Ministry, denied his country was involved in any way.
But in a Sunday statement, Secretary of State ANTONY BLINKEN didn’t shy from singling out Iran.
“Iranian state institutions have incited violence against Rushdie for generations, and state-affiliated media recently gloated about the attempt on his life,” he said. “This is despicable.”
President JOE BIDEN’s statement, though, didn’t go that far. Instead, he praised Rushdie for standing for the universal ideas of “Truth. Courage. Resilience. … These are the building blocks of any free and open society.”
800 AMCITS RESCUED FROM AFGHANISTAN: The U.S. has rescued more than 800 U.S. citizens from Afghanistan since the withdrawal one year ago today, per a new report by House Republicans. The State Department confirmed the figure after questions from your host, ANDREW DESIDERIO and LARA SELIGMAN.
Since then, Biden administration officials have reached out to add some more context to those numbers. Some of the 800 “are people who went back [to Afghanistan] since August 2021,” a senior U.S. defense official told NatSec Daily. “It’s actually becoming a problem, people go back and then expect us to get them out again.”
A State Department spokesperson emailed something similar: “Some of these 800 Americans we have facilitated the departure of are those who have returned to Afghanistan after getting out, or, gone there for the first time after 8/31 and then asked for assistance. So the number is constantly in flux.”
The mission to keep evacuating Americans is ongoing — it didn’t end a year ago. However, Biden did say U.S. troops would stay in Afghanistan until every American who wanted out was evacuated, even beyond the Aug. 31 deadline.
Meanwhile: The White House is sending a memo around on Capitol Hill with talking points on how to defend against the House GOP Afghanistan report and charges that the withdrawal was a bad idea, per Axios’ ALAYNA TREENE. The document was drafted by National Security Council spokesperson ADRIENNE WATSON, involving the NSC in a heated partisan debate.
‘NO CHANGE’ IN AFGHAN MONEY APPROACH: A Wall Street Journal story today by JESSICA DONATI and MARGHERITA STANCATI said that, following the killing of Al Qaeda leader AYMAN AL ZAWAHRI in Kabul, the Biden administration had officially decided not to send to Afghanistan any of the $7 billion in assets held in the U.S.
“The decision reverses early indications of progress in talks between the U.S. and the Taliban and deals a blow to hopes of an economic recovery in Afghanistan as millions face starvation a year into the group’s rule,” they wrote.
But administration officials have since reached out to NatSec Daily saying that, actually, no such decision has been made. “There has been no change in our approach, which always was and remains focused on finding a way for the funds to benefit the Afghan people, while not benefitting the Taliban,” said National Security Council spokesperson SALONI SHARMA.
As NatSec Daily previously wrote, the U.S. has long been in talks with Taliban officials to ensure about $3.5 billion of those assets would be put in the hands of Afghan citizens, not the Taliban. But now that it’s known Zawahri was allowed safe access in Afghanistan, in violation of the U.S.-Taliban Doha Agreement, there’s even less belief in the Taliban’s willingness to negotiate in good faith.
“The Taliban has not lived up to these commitments,” said State Department spokesperson NED PRICE Monday during a news conference. It’s core to U.S. interests that Afghanistan not become a safe haven for terrorists, he said, and the administration is determined to make progress via diplomacy and other “tools we have been able to wield.”
IC ASSESSES AQ NOT RECONSTITUTED IN AFGHANISTAN: A new U.S. intelligence community assessment following the Zawahri killing indicates that al Qaeda hasn’t reconstituted in Afghanistan.
“We assess that al-Qa’ida has not reconstituted its presence in Afghanistan since the U.S. departure in August 2021. Ayman al-Zawahiri was the only key al-Qa’ida figure who attempted to reestablish their presence in country when he and his family settled in Kabul earlier this year,” reads the assessment seen by NatSec Daily. “We assess that less than a dozen al-Qa’ida core members with historical ties to the group remain in Afghanistan and probably were located there prior to the fall of Kabul; we have no indication that these individuals are involved in external attack plotting.”
The assessment also says the terrorist group “does not have the capability to launch attacks against the U.S. or its interests abroad from Afghanistan.”
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ATTACK ON U.S.-RUN BASE IN SYRIA: A U.S. military base housing American troops and U.S.-backed Syrian opposition fighters was struck by a dual drone attack early Monday morning.
No casualties or damage was reported: the first unmanned aircraft was shot down, while the second impacted the base, according to a U.S. military statement.
“Such attacks put the lives of innocent Syrian civilians at risk and undermine the significant efforts by our Partner Forces to maintain the lasting defeat of ISIS,” wrote Maj. Gen. JOHN BRENNAN, commander of Combined Joint Task Force — Operation Inherent Resolve.
The attack on al-Tanf, the U.S.-operated outpost, occurred hours after an Israeli airstrike killed three Syrian soldiers.
5 AMERICANS INJURED IN JERUSALEM ATTACK: Five Americans were among the eight wounded in an attack on a bus near the Western Wall in Jerusalem’s Old City.
“Two Americans are being treated at the Hadassah Medical Center, and three at Shaare Zedek Medical Center, according to the hospitals. At least two of the Americans injured were tourists, the hospitals said. Israeli media earlier reported that four American victims were tourists and members of the same family,” CNN’s AMIR TAL and HADAS GOLD reported Sunday. “Two of the victims are listed as in serious condition, while the other six victims are mildly and moderately injured, according to emergency services. One of the wounded was pregnant, and underwent an emergency caesarean operation. Both mother and baby are in serious condition, according to Shaare Zedek hospital.”
UKRAINE CYBER CHIEF MADE SURPRISE BLACK HAT VISIT: Ukraine’s cybersecurity chief showed up at the Black Hat hacker conference in Las Vegas to relay the dangerous cyber landscape in his country.
Per The Register’s BRANDON VIGLIAROLO: VICTOR ZHORA “told attendees that Ukraine had detected over 1,600 ‘major cyber incidents’ so far in 2022, but reports don’t include elaboration on how such incidents are classified. A number of huge incidents happened between March and April, Zhora said, including discovery of the ‘Industroyer2,’ an apparent successor to the Industroyer malware discovered in 2017.”
Zhora also noted that cyber incidents against Ukraine have tripled since February — the month Russia’s invasion began.
“This is perhaps the biggest challenge since World War Two for the world, and it continues to be completely new in cyberspace,” Zhora told the audience.
SECDEF POSITIVE FOR COVID: Defense Secretary LLOYD AUSTIN announced Monday that he tested positive for Covid-19.
“I am experiencing mild symptoms, and will quarantine at home for the next five days in accordance with CDC guidelines. I will retain all authorities and plan to maintain my normal work schedule virtually from home,” he said in a statement. “My last in-person contact with the President was on July 29.”
Austin previously tested positive in January.
KEEPING SPACE COMMAND IN COLORADO: Our friends at Morning Defense (for Pros!) report that Colorado’s lawmakers are pushing to keep U.S. Space Command in the state.
“Nine lawmakers have sharpened their argument that keeping the command in Colorado Springs would accelerate achieving full operational capability. They made their argument in a public comment filed on Friday to the Air Force’s Draft Environmental Assessment, which set the stage for moving the command to Huntsville, Ala,” per Morning D. “The fate of the command, which was reestablished in 2019, has been hotly contested since the Trump administration’s 11th-hour decision to move the headquarters from Colorado to Alabama.”
“Claims that the decision was politically motivated, and bypassed the Air Force’s traditional selection process, led the Biden administration and Congress to review the decision,” the newsletter continued. “But while the DoD inspector general and the Government Accountability Office found gaps in the selection process, they concluded the decision was sound.”
CODEL VISITS TAIWAN: The congressional delegation in Asia led by Sen. ED MARKEY (D-Mass.) made an expected stop in Taiwan, right on the heels of Speaker NANCY PELOSI’s visit and as tensions between China and the democratic island are at historic highs.
“I thank President TSAI [ING-WEN], Foreign Minister [JOSEPH] WU, and everyone we met with for their warm welcome to Taiwan,” Markey said in a Monday statement. “Consistent with our commitments under the Taiwan Relations Act, the United States must continue to support Taiwan’s meaningful participation in the international community and help Taiwan withstand cross-Strait coercion. We must continue to work together to avoid conflict and miscalculation in the Taiwan Strait.”
LIU PENGYU, a spokesperson for the Chinese Embassy in the U.S., blasted the visit on Twitter. “Members of the US Congress should act in consistence with the US government’s one-China policy,” he wrote. “The relevant visit once again proves that the US does not want to see stability across the Taiwan Straits and has spared no effort to stir up confrontation between the two sides and interfere in China’s internal affairs.”
China carried out more military exercises near Taiwan in a clear response to the Markey-led visit.
BURNS EMPLOYED 20 CCP MEMBERS AT CARNEGIE:BILL BURNS employed at least 20 members of the Chinese Communist Party when he led the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace before becoming Biden’s CIA director, the Daily Caller News Foundation’s PHILIP LENCZYCKI reported.
Between February 2015 and November 2021, when Burns headed the think tank, the 20 CCP members worked in the Washington, D.C., and Beijing offices. “[E]xpert profiles on Carnegie’s website don’t disclose these individuals’ ties to the CCP. The DCNF only discovered their communist ties after analyzing hundreds of Chinese-language, Communist Party branch records and personnel profiles from more than a dozen CCP-linked organizations,” Lenczycki wrote. “High-ranking members of Chinese government influence operations and government officials also joined Carnegie’s board of trustees under Burns, according to multiple sources.”
Important context: “[T]he majority of Carnegie-employed CCP members were brought onboard before Burns’ tenure began…. However, Carnegie also brought on at least four CCP members during Burns’ presidency.” And Burns was confirmed unanimously out of the Senate Intelligence Committee.
Neither Carnegie nor the CIA commented for the story before publication time.
We asked our China Watcher PHELIM KINE to provide some more context: “Party membership is a useful advantage for anyone pursuing any kind of career in elite circles, either in China or outside it,” he wrote to your host on Slack. “Just because somebody is a CCP member doesn’t mean they are a zealous espionage risk. And to my knowledge there is no current obligation for someone in the think tank/academic fields to disclose their party membership unless they are seeking U.S. government funding that might be at perceived risk of enabling potential hostile activities, academic or otherwise, back in China.”
“In the not-so-old days, think tanks likely perceived employing high quality academics who happened to be CCP members as an advantage — a potential route to inside access with the Chinese government,” he concluded.
— FIRST IN NATSEC DAILY: NATE EVANS is now director of communications and spokesperson at the U.S. Mission to the UN, DANIEL LIPPMAN has learned. He most recently was deputy chief of staff for Sen. AMY KLOBUCHAR (D-Minn.) and was also Wisconsin communications director for the Biden campaign.
— EILISH ZEMBILCI is now a consultant and policy analyst for the World Food Program USA and staying on with CSIS’s global food security program as an adjunct non-resident fellow while she pursues her MPP from Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy.
— BUSHRA SEDDIQUE, The Atlantic: “My Escape from The Taliban”
— TOM NAGORSKI and JASON PALLADINO, Grid: “How a US soldier helped one Afghan to escape the Taliban”
— JEFF SCHOGOL, Task & Purpose: “Vietnam vets’ advice to Afghanistan vets for coping with Kabul’s fall”
— The Wilson Center, 11 a.m.: “India and Pakistan at 75—A Dialogue with Akbar Ahmed and Nirupama Rao”
— The Cato Institute, 12 p.m.: “The Taliban Today”
Have a natsec-centric event coming up? Transitioning to a new defense-adjacent or foreign policy-focused gig? Shoot me an email at [email protected] to be featured in the next edition of the newsletter.
And thanks to my editor, Ben Pauker, who needs your love and support after Manchester United’s 4-0 loss to Brentford this weekend.