December 2, 2021

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State’s inspector general eyeing SIV probe

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With help from Nahal Toosi and Paul McLeary.

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FIRST IN NATSEC DAILY — The State Department’s Office of the Inspector General is actively “considering” a probe into the agency’s handling of the Special Immigrant Visa program before, during and after Afghanistan’s collapse. If the inquiry is opened, the office’s findings could prove damaging to the process as a whole and to the Biden administration.

The SIV program has come under scrutiny in recent weeks, after the U.S. failure to evacuate tens of thousands of applicants and grantees from Afghanistan before the Taliban’s takeover. The majority of the 20,000 Afghan applicants — who aided the U.S. government during the 20-year war in Afghanistan — and their family members were left behind after the military mission ended on Aug. 31, a State Department official told reporters earlier this month.

President JOE BIDEN’s team blames the Trump administration for bringing the program to a virtual standstill for years. But the 2009-launched program’s many problems aren’t recent, as it’s long been plagued by delays caused by staffing shortages and bureaucratic inertia.

In June 2020, State’s OIG released a report concluding “that the Department’s staffing levels across its various offices that process Afghan SIVs have generally remained constant since 2016 and are insufficient to reduce the SIV applicant backlog. Similarly, staffing levels during the interagency and security check process contribute to delays in processing the Afghan SIVs.”

Now, that same office may do another deep dive into State’s handling of the program. “The Office of Inspector General is considering work in this area and per our standard practice it will be announced on our website,” RYAN HOLDEN, a spokesperson for State OIG, told NatSec Daily.

Such an investigation would be welcomed by some on Capitol Hill. Rep. AMI BERA (D-Calif.) today will send a letter to four inspectors general seeking a joint audit of the Special Immigrant Visa process in Afghanistan.

“Although the law requires SIV applications to be processed within nine months, the program has been plagued by backlogs leading to processing times that can last over three years. These delays put our Afghan allies at increased risk of facing violent retribution by the Taliban,” the House Foreign Affairs Committee member wrote in the letter exclusively obtained by NatSec Daily.

Bera wants JOHN SOPKO, the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction to look into the issue, hopefully alongside DIANA SHAW, SEAN O’DONNELL and THOMAS ULLOM, respectively the acting inspectors general of the State Department, Pentagon and U.S. Agency for International Development.

Bera said that “at a minimum,” the investigators should look into 10 questions, among them “the average time taken to process an application from the date of submission until final disposition” and “the extent to which the Department of State adjusted practices and procedures to vet applicants following the February 2020 deal with the Taliban.”

Pentagon spokesperson JOHN KIRBY today said he’s unaware of any DoD IG probe, and it’s unclear if Sopko or other inspectors general at agencies like the Department of Homeland Security or CIA are considering their own investigations.

Activists aren’t convinced another State probe will do much, though, as the June 2020 investigation didn’t lead to wholesale reform. MATT ZELLER, who co-founded the group No One Left Behind to help SIV applicants through the process, said he’d prefer to see an Afghanistan war commission, as proposed by Sen. TAMMY DUCKWORTH (D-Ill.).

FIRST IN NATSEC DAILY — BIDEN IS NEARING (OR HAS SOUNDLY BEATEN?) TRUMP’S REFUGEE NUMBERS: By one metric, Biden is oh-so-close to beating his predecessor DONALD TRUMP’s historic low of refugees resettled to the United States. By another, he’s gone way past that and surpassed an official goal no one thought he could meet.

The difference? The crisis in Afghanistan.

As of Sept. 29, the Biden administration had technically brought over 11,409 refugees for fiscal year 2021, which ends Sept. 30 (today), a State Department spokesperson told our own NAHAL TOOSI. In its final full fiscal year, the Trump administration resettled 11,814 refugees.

The Biden number does include several hundred Afghans who were processed through traditional refugee programs. But for the most part, it doesn’t count Afghans brought over as parolees or under other programs during the recent U.S. evacuations from the country.

Still, many of the same people inside and outside government who help resettle refugees are also helping resettle the evacuees. Of the people evacuated, some 54,000 were parolees, a senior administration official said. Combined, that means the U.S. refugee program in effect has resettled around 65,000 people this fiscal year.

That beats the 62,500 refugee cap set by Biden after some controversy earlier this year. It was a goal many thought would not be met because of the time it would take to rebuild the refugee program following Trump’s efforts to effectively eliminate it. The Afghan crisis, however, turbocharged that rebuilding effort, the senior administration official said.

DOD AND STATE FIGHT OVER EVAC TIMELINE: The Pentagon and State Department are swiping at each other, dueling over who dillydallied on evacuating Americans as Afghanistan fell. Our own LARA SELIGMAN has the latest twist in the fight:

In a closed session with senators on Tuesday, Gen. MARK MILLEY, the chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, reportedly blamed the State Department in blunt comments, saying officials “waited too long” to order the operation, according to Axios.

But two senior State Department officials told Seligman that Milley never pushed for an earlier evacuation in the days before Kabul fell.

On Aug. 6, senior leaders from the Pentagon, State Department, National Security Council, the intelligence community and U.S. Central Command gathered for a table-top exercise to go over plans for a possible non-combatant evacuation, or NEO, the State Department officials said. No military representative there objected to the plan, which involved keeping embassy staffers on the ground past the military withdrawal, they said.

“Nobody at that meeting said ‘it’s time to pull the trigger on the NEO,’” one of the officials said. Neither did Milley propose a faster evacuation in subsequent meetings about Afghanistan, the other State official added.

In fact, as the Taliban advanced on Kabul on Aug. 12, Biden’s top national security advisers decided it was time to bail out.

Given the rapidly deteriorating security situation, the U.S. would shutter the embassy in Kabul by Aug. 31, they decided, instead of keeping staff there after the military was gone, two senior State Department officials told Seligman.

U.S. CONSIDERS RUSSIAN BASES FOR COUNTERRORISM OPS: In a classified hearing following public testimony Tuesday, three top Pentagon leaders — Defense Secretary LLOYD AUSTIN, Gen. Milley and Gen. FRANK MCKENZIE — told senators the United States was seriously considering using Russian military bases to host American counterterrorism operations that could surveil and strike targets in Afghanistan, per our own ANDREW DESIDERIO and Seligman.

The top brass confirmed the United States was in talks with the governments of countries bordering Afghanistan — including Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and others — to house the “over the horizon” capabilities on sites that could be run by the Russians out of central Asia.

Austin publicly acknowledged the United States has asked Russia for “clarification” about President VLADIMIR PUTIN’s offer to host the American ops, and senators said Milley privately described the nature of his conversations with his Russian counterpart, VALERY GERASIMOV. McKenzie also privately detailed specific types of aircraft and launching points that could be used to strike terrorist targets in Afghanistan.

INDIA SANCTIONS?: A single Russian air defense system has loomed large over U.S. foreign policy recently. First it was Turkey, who was kicked out of the F-35 program and saw its defense industry slapped with U.S. sanctions last year after purchasing a Russian S-400 air and missile defense battery.

Now it’s India, which is also slated to take delivery of the first of its five S-400s later this year, our own PAUL MCCLEARY reports. The pending delivery is causing headaches for the Biden administration as it tries to pull Delhi closer as part of a promised rebalance to the Pacific region to confront China.

In play is the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, a law that provides a menu of options to punish countries for buying big-ticket Russian military hardware. McLeary writes that the Biden team is debating whether to ding the Indians or issue a waiver once that first battery rolls off a Russian cargo plane.

The government of NARENDRA MODI, for its part, appears to have made the decision to go forward with the system. “They planned around it, they made this commitment and reaffirmed it. They’re not blinking on this and so we can play this game of chicken as much as we want, but the consequences will be worse for us,” if India sees Washington as trying to interfere, said SAMEER LALWANI, director of the Stimson Center’s South Asia Program.

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KIM’S NOT THAT INTO U.S.: North Korean leader KIM JONG UN said relations between Washington and Pyongyang haven’t improved with Biden in charge — and likely won’t any time soon.

“The U.S. is touting ‘diplomatic engagement’ and ‘dialogue without preconditions’ but it is no more than a petty trick for deceiving the international community and hiding its hostile acts and an extension of the hostile policy pursued by the successive U.S. administrations,” Kim told North Korea’s legislative body, per a lengthy readout by the country’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

“The U.S. remains utterly unchanged in posing military threats and pursuing hostile policy toward [North Korea] but employs more cunning ways and methods in doing so,” he added.

Kim’s speech comes after North Korea successfully tested a missile that is more survivable before launch, and after the three other rocket tests this month. Tensions have ticked up since then, but a senior administration official said America’s outreach for talks is genuine.

“We have made specific proposals for discussion with the DPRK, but have not received a response,” the official told NatSec Daily, using the acronym for the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, North Korea’s official name. “We remain prepared to meet to discuss the full range of issues.” The official, however, didn’t detail what those “specific proposals” are.

But Kim did extend an olive branch to South Korea in his speech. “He expressed the intention to see to it that the north-south communication lines that had been cut off due to the deteriorated inter-Korean relations are restored first from early October,” per Pyongyang’s readout.

TRACKING TECH IN GUNS COULD COMPROMISE TROOPS: Some U.S. military units are embedding radio frequency identification technology in their guns to keep better track of them — even though the Pentagon has described the new tech as a “significant operations security risk” because it could help enemies locate and identify American troops, per The Associated Press’ JAMES LAPORTA, JUSTIN PRITCHARD and KRISTIN M. HALL.

The Defense Department says it opposes embedding RFID tags in weapons used in combat or to guard bases, but “AP found five Air Force bases that have operated at least one RFID armory, and one more that plans a retrofit. Executives at military contracting companies said many more units have sought proposals.”

AP confirmed a Florida-based Army Green Berets unit uses the RFID tech in “a few” arms rooms, and the Navy reported using it for inventory in one armory on a base outside Los Angeles. But the Navy later told AP the RFID tech would no longer be used, as it “didn’t meet operational requirements.” The Marines also have rejected the RFID tech.

EVERYONE’S GOT A VULNERABILITY PROGRAM: ROB JOYCE, the National Security Agency’s cybersecurity director, yesterday said that nearly every country on Earth has a program to exploit cyber vulnerabilities, Cyberscoop’s TIM STARKS reported.

“Almost every nation in the world now has a cyber exploitation program. The vast majority of those are used for espionage and intelligence purposes,” he said at the Aspen Cyber Summit. “There is interest in dabbling in offensive cyber and outcomes.” That even includes some smaller countries, Joyce noted, though the “big four” of China, Russia, Iran and North Korea remain the most dangerous.

China’s program, though, is “off the charts,” Joyce said, adding “the amount of Chinese cyber actors dwarfs the rest of the globe combined.” Meanwhile, the top NSA official said of Russia: “We’ve seen evidence of pre-positioning against U.S. critical infrastructure.”

U.S. AND CHINA TALKING: Defense officials from China and the U.S. spoke over the last two days for virtual coordination talks, the Pentagon confirmed last evening.

MICHAEL CHASE, the deputy assistant defense secretary for China, held a secure video conference with Maj. Gen. HUANG XUEPING, deputy director of the PLA’s international military cooperation office.

“During the talks, the two sides held a frank, in-depth, and open discussion on a range of issues affecting the U.S.-PRC defense relationship. Both sides reaffirmed consensus to keep communication channels open. The U.S. side also made clear our commitment to uphold shared principles with our allies and partners in the Indo-Pacific region,” said Lt. Col. MARTIN MEINERS, a DoD spokesperson.

This terse readout comes as Republicans are angry with Milley for calling his Chinese counterpart during the Trump administration to convey that the U.S. would not be attacking China.

FIRST IN POLITICO — RAND PAUL BLOCKED IRON DOME FUNDING: Sen. RAND PAUL (R-Ky.) objected to swift passage of a bill to replenish Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system, five congressional sources told Desiderio, your host and ANTHONY ADRAGNA.

The bill, which cleared the House overwhelmingly last week with more than 400 votes in favor, would appropriate $1 billion for the Iron Dome, a state-of-the-art system that is designed to prevent rockets from striking inside Israel’s borders.

The House-passed bill was brought up as a “hotline” for both parties — a process that requires the consent of all 100 senators in order for the bill to hit the Senate floor immediately for a vote. Democrats cleared the hotline unanimously, three people said, but the GOP hotline didn’t go through due to Paul’s concerns that the new funding for the Iron Dome was not offset with spending cuts elsewhere.

“He proposed that we pay for the House bill with money that is going to go to the Taliban,” a spokesperson for the Kentucky senator said. A Senate GOP staffer confirmed that Paul held the measure over Afghanistan aid.

“I don’t see what’s so controversial to Democrats about taking money from the Taliban to pay for this request,” said Paul’s communications director, KELSEY COOPER. The senator has introduced separate legislation to fund the Iron Dome by redirecting already-appropriated spending.

An effort — supported by Republicans — to hotline an amendment to the funding bill that would add the Iron Dome money also fell apart this week.

HOUSE LAWMAKERS WANT WAR POWERS OVERHAUL: Reps. JIM MCGOVERN (D-Mass.) and PETER MEIJER (R-Mich.) are spearheading an expansive new war powers bill that would require input from lawmakers at the outset of major military hostilities, arms deals or national emergency declarations, according to our own CONNOR O’BRIEN.

The legislation — called the National Security Reforms and Accountability Act — mirrors a similar bipartisan war powers bill introduced in the Senate in July by Sens. CHRIS MURPHY (D-Conn.), BERNIE SANDERS (I-Vt.) and MIKE LEE (R-Utah).

Though it’s still unclear if the House bill will be debated and receive a vote, McGovern and Meijer’s effort “comes as Democrats and Republicans on both sides of the Capitol look to repeal outdated war authorizations, such as the 2002 authorization for the Iraq War, and rewrite the 2001 law that governs much of the U.S. overseas counterterrorism operations,” per O’Brien.

POMPEO COUNTERS MILLEY: Former Secretary of State MIKE POMPEO is denying Milley’s claim to Congress this week that the Joint Chiefs chair briefed him and other top Trump administration officials on calls with a Chinese counterpart. “I have no recollection of General Milley briefing me in the way that he described,” Pompeo told SiriusXM’s “The Megyn Kelly Show” on Wednesday.

“If I’d have heard it, I would’ve gone high and right. I’d be very surprised if that’s precisely how General Milley told the Chinese that,” the former secretary continued. “But if he told [BOB] WOODWARD and [ROBERT] COSTA that he said that, this is something he has to account for. That would be deeply inconsistent with his responsibilities.”

Whether Milley informed the Trump team about his two calls to Beijing remains a contentious point — one that has the nation’s top military officer batting back unceasing criticism from conservatives.

— FIRST IN NATSEC DAILY: RUSS TRAVERS, the National Security Council’s lead for bringing Afghan SIVs home, is retiring for the second time after 43 years of public service. He’s stepping down now that Operation Allies Refuge is over and former Delaware Gov. JACK MARKELL and DHS are now in charge of the resettlement effort.

Homeland Security Adviser LIZ SHERWOOD-RANDALL wishes Travers a found farewell: “Across decades of noble service to our country, including as a member of the military, the intelligence community, and the White House national security team, Russ Travers has contributed immeasurably to making Americans more secure. His wisdom, rigor, and integrity have guided us in our exigent work and he will be much missed by his admiring colleagues in the U.S. government and around the world.”

Travers will retire at the end of the week.

— JAMES TINGLE is now special assistant to the commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection at the Department of Homeland Security. He most recently was a vetting researcher at the Office of Presidential Personnel at the White House.

The president has nominated SHANNON CORLESS to serve as assistant secretary for Intelligence and Analysis at the Treasury Department. She most recently was the Intelligence Community’s Economic Security and Financial Intelligence Executive.

— ADRIENNE WATSON, communications director at the Democratic National Committee, will become deputy spokesperson at the National Security Council and is set to start work in early November, per our own ALEX THOMPSON. Watson will report to NSC spokesperson EMILY HORNE.

— ALICE SPERI, The Intercept: “How Police and Armed Groups Turned the Pandemic Into a Human Rights Crisis”

— JAMES STOUT, The Nation: “They Fled the Taliban. Now They’re in a Tent City in New Mexico.”

— W.J. HENNIGAN, Time: “America’s War in Afghanistan Is Over. But in the Horn of Africa, its War On Terror Rages On”

— The Overseas Development Institute, 6:30 a.m.: “Towards a green recovery in Africa: implementing the AfCFTA — with JEAN-PAUL ADAM, GEORGE BOATENG, JODIE KEANE and HANNAH RYDER

— The Atlantic Council, 9 a.m.: “Which way will Ukrainian judicial reform go? — with EMILY CHANNELL-JUSTICE, HALIA CHYZHYK, MELINDA HARING, SERGII IONUSHAS, MATTI MAASIKAS and MYKHAILO ZHERNAKOV

— The Center for Strategic and International Studies, 9 a.m.: “Inaugural U.S.-EU Trade and Technology Council Meeting Recap — with ROBERT D. ATKINSON, MEREDITH BROADBENT, MELISSA K. GRIFFITH, CECILIA MALMSTRÖM and WILLIAM ALAN REINSCH

— The Center for Strategic and International Studies, 10 a.m.: “A Conversation with Deputy Secretary of Defense Dr. KATHLEEN H. HICKS — with NINA EASTON and BEVERLY KIRK

— The Hudson Institute, 12 p.m.: “A Dissident’s View of Communist China — with WU’ER KAIXI and NURY TURKEL

— Freedom First, 6 p.m.: “Vigil and portrait unveiling to mark the third anniversary of JAMAL KHASHOGGI’s Assassination — with ABDULLAH ALAOUDH, AREEJ ALSADHAN, ABDERRAHMANE AMOR, HATICE CENGIZ, RAED JARRAR, NADINE FARID JOHNSON, EASON JORDAN, SHERIF MANSOUR, PHILIPPE NASSIF and AMRIT SINGH

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 does such a good job that no investigations are needed.

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