House group moves to label Russia as terrorist state- POLITICO

With help from Phelim Kine, Lara Seligman and Connor O’Brien

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FIRST IN NATSEC DAILY –– Five House members will imminently introduce legislation to officially designate Russia as a state sponsor of terrorism, putting them and Congress on a collision course with the secretary of State, who argues only he can slap that label on a country.

The bill — co-led by Reps. TED LIEU (D-Calif.), JOE WILSON (R-S.C.), JARED GOLDEN (D-Maine), ADAM KINZINGER (R-Ill.) and TOM MALINOWSKI (D-N.J.) — says that “the Russian Federation shall be deemed to have been determined to be a country the government of which has repeatedly provided support for acts of international terrorism.” If the ‘‘Russia is a State Sponsor of Terrorism Act’’ clears both chambers, the pressure will be on President JOE BIDEN to sign it into law. And if he does, Russian President VLADIMIR PUTIN’s country will join an ignominious list featuring North Korea, Syria, Cuba and Iran.

“The United States must use every tool we have to stop Russia from its violent aggression in Ukraine,” Lieu told NatSec Daily. “Russia supports proxies conducting terrorism against civilians around the globe, from Syria to Ukraine. By designating Russia as a state sponsor of terrorism, this legislation increases consequences on Putin’s murderous behavior.”

The measure’s introduction comes after Speaker NANCY PELOSI (D-Calif.) warned Secretary of State ANTONY BLINKEN last week that if he didn’t label Russia as a terrorist state for its actions during the invasion of Ukraine, Congress would. After Alex and BETSY WOODRUFF SWAN first reported that exchange July 20, Pelosi told Andrew the next day that the designation was “long overdue,” adding: “I’ve been advocating it for four months, at least.”

The move also muddies a tricky legal landscape: Congress previously granted the secretary of State the authority to designate a country as a terrorist state. “I’m obligated, the department is obligated to follow the law. Criteria against which we make this determination are defined by Congress. So that’s what we’re looking at,” Blinken told reporters Wednesday.

But, Malinowski told us, “Congress can pass a law to give the executive an authority to do something, but it doesn’t prevent Congress from continuing to legislate on that thing,” adding it’s “vastly preferable” if Blinken made the designation on his own. The lawmakers and their aides, after consulting with the Congressional Research Service and legislative counsel, say they can “circumvent” State with this new legislation.

This effort is the most aggressive yet by lawmakers on the terrorism-label issue.

The Senate passed a non-binding resolution via unanimous consent Wednesday night that doesn’t go as far as the new House bill. The Senate measure, led by Sens. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R-S.C.) and RICHARD BLUMENTHAL (D-Conn.), simply calls on Blinken to make the designation. It’s a pressure tactic.

But both senators, who gifted a framed copy of the resolution to VOLODYMYR ZELENSKYY in Kyiv earlier this month, touted it today as a significant victory because, at the very least, Blinken knows where the Senate stands on the issue.

“I didn’t think there was an issue under the sun that would get 100 votes. We found it: Russia is a state sponsor of terrorism,” Graham said.

Graham speculated that Blinken might be wary of making the designation due to the Biden administration’s ongoing efforts to free two American prisoners from Russia, BRITTNEY GRINER and PAUL WHELAN, as part of a swap with Moscow that likely would send prominent arms dealer VIKTOR BOUT the other way.

The South Carolina senator also told NatSecDaily that he doesn’t think a change in the law is required, but believes that a majority of senators would support that if it meant the executive branch were no longer the sole arbiter of the terrorism designation. This, of course, would eat up a lot of Senate floor time while Democrats try to pass their domestic priorities before the midterm elections.

If Blinken were to follow through with the terrorism designation, it would carry significant ramifications for Russia, including secondary sanctions on entities that do business with Russia. (This was what Republicans were pushing for as part of a package to deter a Russian invasion earlier this year.) It would also allow Russia to be sued in U.S. courts.

We asked the White House if the administration believes Congress can make the designation on its own, but we didn’t hear back before publication.

XI-BIDEN CALL PRODUCES TAIWAN “FIRE” THREAT: President JOE BIDEN and Chinese leader XI JINPING spoke for over two hours today; the fifth engagement between the world’s two most powerful countries, our own PHELIM KINE reported.

The Chinese government readout of the meeting clocked in at 587 words, 293 of which were bland avocations of the need for bilateral cooperation on “peace and security” and “protecting global energy and food security.” Then Xi dropped the gloves and — as he did in the two leaders’ call in March — went hard with a 258-word screed hammering home China’s concerns about U.S. policy toward Taiwan, or what Xi referred to as “China’s principled position on the Taiwan question.”

That rant took a lurid twist that implicitly echoed Beijing’s barrage of bluster about Pelosi’s proposed trip to Taiwan next month with Xi’s threat that “those who play with fire will perish by it.” Before you get alarmed, “playing with fire” is that’s a stock Chinese Foreign Ministry phrase favored by wolf warrior spokesperson ZHAO LIJIAN that Beijing has leveled over the years at targets including Hong Kong pro-democracy protesters.

The Chinese government offset its otherwise bland official statement by deploying one of its YouTube-based foreign shills to say the quiet part out loud. Less than 30 minutes after the call concluded, LIU PENGYU spokesperson for the Chinese embassy in Washington, D.C., tweeted a video featuring the Shanghai-based CCP propagandist ANDY BOREHAM. Boreham is a New Zealand native whose Twitter feed is categorized as “China state-affiliated media.” Boreham likely won Liu’s heart by titling the video “Taiwan is not a country and Nancy Pelosi should stay away.”

The White House readout was a more concise and substance-free 150-word statement that referenced “a range of issues important to bilateral relationship.” It named only two of them — climate change and health security. The statement concluded with a ritualistic reiteration of the administration’s commitment to the One-China Policy regarding Taiwan while growling about Washinton’s opposition to “unilateral efforts to change the status quo” of the self-governing island.

HOW RUSSIA SPREAD SECRET AGENTS WITHIN UKRAINE: “In less than two hours, and without a fight, the 169 members of the Ukrainian National Guard laid down their weapons,” as Russian troops approached Chernobyl on the afternoon of Feb. 24. “Now a Reuters investigation has found that Russia’s success at Chernobyl was no accident, but part of a long-standing Kremlin operation to infiltrate the Ukrainian state with secret AGENTS.”

That’s how an incredible report by Reuters’ MARI SAITO and MARIA TSEVTKOVA begins. When the invasion started, Ukrainian National Security and Defense Council Secretary OLEKSIY DANILOV told Reuters that “Russia had agents in the Ukrainian defence, security and law enforcement sectors,” but he didn’t provide names or any other identifying details.

“At a national level, sources with knowledge of the Kremlin’s plans said Moscow was counting on activating sleeper agents inside the Ukrainian security apparatus. The sources confirmed Western intelligence reports that the Kremlin was lining up OLEG TSARYOV, a hotelier, to lead a puppet government in Kyiv. And a former Ukrainian prosecutor general disclosed to Reuters in June that Ukrainian politician VIKTOR MEDVEDCHUK, a friend of Putin, had an encrypted phone issued by Russia so he could communicate with the Kremlin,” per the Reuters report. “In many cases, the sleeper agents Moscow had installed failed to do their job, according to multiple sources in Russia and Ukraine.”

This plot, surely known to Russian President VLADIMIR PUTIN, helps explain why the Russians were so confident they could take over Ukraine in days. If the assumption was sleeper agents would roll out the red carpet for Russian invaders, then it makes sense that the Kremlin thought it’d all be over soon. Obviously, that plan didn’t work. Except…

“But the Russian intelligence infiltration did succeed in one way: It has sown mistrust inside Ukraine and laid bare the shortcomings of Ukraine’s near 30,000-strong Security Service of Ukraine, or SBU, which shares a complicated history with Russia, and is now tasked with hunting down traitors and collaborators,” Reuters reported.

‘WHAT’S YOUR BEEF?’ Reporters’ ears perked up today when a reporter for the Russian-owned Tass wire service asked Gen. STEPHEN TOWNSEND, the outgoing U.S. Africa Command chief, “what’s your beef?” with Russian activity in Africa. To Townsend’s credit, he answered without missing a beat: It’s the Russian mercenary group, Wagner, that he has a problem with, not Russian government forces, our own LARA SELIGMAN writes in.

Townsend described his interactions with Russian Ministry of Defense forces starting in Syria, where he was commander of Operation Inherent Command from 2016 to 2017, as “very professional.” But the Wagner group, on the other hand, “are not beholden to any rules or laws of armed conflict” and attacked his forces in Syria on “a number of occasions.”

“I don’t see that Wagner has any good intentions to help the people of Africa. They’re there to make a profit. And to prop up dictators,” he said.

The Ukraine ripple effect In Africa: Townsend said he is “alert” to the possibility of increased Russian activity in Africa to distract western forces from the fight in Ukraine, but he isn’t seeing that just yet. On the contrary, Townsend believes Moscow is “very stretched” right now and does not have the “bandwidth to launch new adventures in Africa.”

In fact, when Russian forces got in trouble in Ukraine, they called on soldiers around the world, including from the Wagner Group in Africa, to join the fight, Townsend said. So that actually led to a drawdown in Wagner’s forces from Libya, in particular, he noted.

Townsend’s comments expanded on remarks he made to reporters earlier in the week, when he said the group appears to be “leaning into Mali” in a bid to take advantage of the transitional government’s struggles with a jihadi insurgency.

IT’S THURSDAY: 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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BLINKEN TO DRC AND RWANDA: SecState Blinken is headed to the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Rwanda in August to squash a brewing conflict that could spiral further out of control.

Per The Africa Report’s JULIAN PECQUET and ROMAIN GRAS, the top American diplomat will look to broker a deal between the two countries over the actions of the M23 rebel group. The DRC accuses Rwanda of supporting the fighters who are taking over towns in the large nation’s east and targeting civilians, a charge Kigali firmly denies. A presidential-level meeting earlier this month failed to calm tensions, and Kenya –– which has taken the lead on the peace issue –– is too busy with a presidential election to do much right now.

So Blinken will travel to Africa for the second time to help make peace before a larger war breaks out. It’s unclear if he can end the violence with a single visit, but his attention to the crisis shows just how seriously the Biden administration views the situation.

DOJ INVESTIGATING FEDERAL COURT BREACH: The Justice Department is looking into a data breach of the U.S. federal court system dating to early 2020, our own MAGGIE MILLER reported.

“House Judiciary Committee Chair Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) told fellow lawmakers that there had been a ‘system security failure’ of the U.S. Courts’ document management system. He said the committee learned in March about the ‘startling breadth and scope’ of the breach. It was the first public disclosure of the hack,” she wrote. “Nadler said the data breach of the courts was separate from the SolarWinds hack revealed in late 2020, which involved Russian government-backed hackers infiltrating the networks of over a dozen U.S. federal agencies for much of 2020, including the federal court systems. He spoke at a committee hearing on oversight of the Justice Department’s National Security Division.”

A committee aide told Miller that Nadler’s questions came after the committee received a briefing on the attack, noting that “the sweeping impact it may have had on the operation of the Department of Justice is staggering.” The aide was granted anonymity in order to discuss a private briefing.

NAVY TO CULTIVATE CYBER TALENT: The Navy is looking to train reservists to be cyber warriors, even if they aren’t already tech wizards, Defense One’s LAUREN WILLIAMS reported.

U.S. Fleet Cyber Command has authorized Operation Cyber Dragon, which allows “sailors [to] learn cyber techniques as they hunt down and fix problems in unclassified networks,” Williams wrote. “The program, which started earlier this year and is to complete its second phase on Aug. 19, relies on reservists who typically are joining to fulfill their required two weeks of annual training. The most recent batch of 30 sailors was rotated in on July 25.”

“Probably the most beneficial thing about this is I can take anyone, as long as you have a [common access] card, and we have a network terminal, and you can read a [standard operating procedure] and you’re familiar with the internet,” Chief Warrant Officer SCOTT BRYSON told Williams. “We’re not programming anything. We’re not writing any scripts. We’re scanning, we’re utilizing commercial scanning tools.”

FASTER ACQUISITION: Our friends at Morning Defense (for Pros!) report that the Army’s top weapons buyer spoke to reporters Wednesday of the challenges with getting new technology into the hands of soldiers — or in acquisition speak, “going from prototypes to production.”

The Army is taking several steps to address the problem, said DOUG BUSH, assistant secretary for acquisition, logistics and technology. One is relying on “high-fidelity prototypes,” meaning ones closer to production, he said. Another is making a push for digital engineering.

“While that will always be a challenge, I am seeing encouraging signs that we are learning how to get that right,” he said, pointing to the service’s directed energy programs as one example.

One thing on reporters’ minds was the recent failure of the hypersonic missile being developed by the Army and the Navy, called “Dark Eagle.” The Pentagon was “unable to collect data on the entirety of the planned flight profile” after the missile failed to perform, the department told Morning D in a statement at the time.

But while he acknowledged the test was not “100 percent perfect,” Bush said it was “largely successful,” and added that the Army is planning additional tests in the future. “The program continues on track and on schedule and we are not slowing down.”

BREAKING: The CHIPS and Science Act passed the House 243-187-1 (Rep. SARA JACOBS, Democrat of California, voted “present”). Now it’s on to Biden’s desk for signature. “I look forward to signing this bill into law and continuing to grow our economy from the bottom up and middle out for working families all across the country,” the president said in a statement.

FIRST IN NATSEC DAILY –– J STREET CODEL TO ISRAEL: A J Street-funded congressional delegation to Israel and Palestinian territories begins Sunday, NatSec Daily has learned.

The four Democrats — House Majority Whip JIM CLYBURN (D-S.C.) alongside Reps. G.K. BUTTERFIELD (D-N.C.), MARY GAY SCANLON (D-Pa.) and SALUD CARBAJAL (D-Calif.) — will visit Israeli communities along the Gaza border; Israeli settlements and Palestinian communities in the West Bank; and Yad Vashem. They’ll also hold meetings with Israeli Prime Minister YAIR LAPID, Israeli President ISAAC HERZOG, Palestinian Prime Minister MOHAMMED SHTAYYEH and civil society and humanitarian groups.

“This CODEL to Israel and the West Bank is an opportunity for me and my congressional colleagues to experience some up close and personal perspectives into the region. Our group will undoubtedly benefit from firsthand interactions with Israelis and Palestinians whose own wide range of experiences should be instructive to our congressional efforts,” Clyburn said of the trip sponsored by the left-leaning pro-Israel organization.

SENATE PROPOSES SPENDING BUMP: Senate Democratic appropriators are calling for an increase to Pentagon spending well beyond Biden’s budget request as momentum gathers for a larger defense budget.

The Senate Appropriations Committee rolled out its twelve annual government funding bills, including draft defense spending legislation. The measure would allocate over $792 billion for the bulk of the Pentagon budget, representing a $30 billion increase to Biden’s budget. Our colleague CONNOR O’BRIEN has a full rundown (for Pros!)

Keep in mind this is just one part of the national defense budget. Senate Appropriations Chair PATRICK LEAHY (D-Vt.) said in a statement that total defense spending proposed by his panel clocks in around $850 billion — which he said tracks to the House-passed NDAA.

That hefty total includes other accounts, such as nuclear weapons programs funded under the Energy Department as well as military construction. Military infrastructure programs saw a $4 billion boost in a separate funding bill, according to our colleague LAWRENCE UKENYE (also for Pros!).

Democrats’ priorities for defense spending include shoring up the industrial base, space programs and mitigating the impacts of inflation. They also boosted a few favorite weapons programs, funding six more F-35s than the Pentagon sought and adding $4 billion to Navy shipbuilding accounts to buy a third destroyer and two expeditionary fast transport ships.

How does it stack up? House appropriators’ defense bill included $762 billion, tracking to Biden’s budget. But that bill hasn’t seen action in the House as Democratic leaders doubt they have the votes to pass it.

While GOP appropriators are still finding fault with the Senate bills, the upper chamber’s draft shows clear bipartisan momentum for a much larger defense budget than Biden sought. Expect tens of billions more when lawmaker finally hammer out a deal.

AKLEH REPORT DIRECTIVE: The secretary of State must submit a report to Congress outlining how the U.S. supports a thorough probe into the killing of journalist SHIREEN ABU AKLEH, per new language agreed to in a Senate Appropriations Committee panel.

“The Committee directs the Secretary of State to submit a report to the appropriate congressional committees not later than 180 days after the date of enactment of the act on steps taken to facilitate and support an independent, credible, and transparent investigation into the shooting death of Palestinian-American citizen and journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, including whether section 620M of the FAA applies to such case. The report shall detail which independent party conducted the investigation and the findings therein,” reads the order agreed to by the Subcommittee on State, Foreign Operations and Related Programs.

Lawmakers, mainly Democrats, aren’t satisfied with the administration’s conclusion that Israeli forces were “likely responsible” for Akleh’s killing in May. Though Blinken and Senators have met with Akleh’s family, some want the U.S. to push harder for a deeper investigation.

State won’t have to issue the report until the language comes out of committee, passes both chambers in Congress and is signed by the president. But the SFOPS language is a sign of how angry some Democrats are with the Biden administration’s handling of the aftermath of Akleh’s death.

“The United States must ensure an independent, credible, and transparent investigation into the shooting death of American citizen and journalist Shireen Abu Akleh. Our report language requires the Secretary of State to submit a report to Congress on steps taken to support such an investigation and provide further details on the findings. We will continue working to get the full truth about this tragedy, ensure accountability, and make clear our unwavering support for freedom of the press and the safety of journalists around the world,” Sens. CHRIS VAN HOLLEN (D-Md.), PATRICK LEAHY (D-Vt.), DICK DURBIN (D-Ill.), JEANNE SHAHEEN (D-N.H.), JEFF MERKLEY (D-Ore.) and CHRIS MURPHY (D-Conn.) said in a joint statement.

EXPERTS: PELOSI TAIWAN TRIP ‘TOO DANGEROUS’: Two prominent American experts on U.S.-China-Taiwan relations say Pelosi shouldn’t make the trip to Taipei –– at least not now.

“A single spark could ignite this combustible situation into a crisis that escalates to military conflict. Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan could provide it,” the German Marshall Fund’s BONNIE GLASER and ZACK COOPER wrote in The New York Times’ opinion section. Xi, the Chinese leader, “may take big risks to defend a perceived infringement on China’s territorial integrity and sovereignty. Beijing has warned that its military will not sit idly by if the trip goes ahead.”

On Tuesday, NatSec Daily spoke to experts, including Glaser, about the Pelosi-to-Taiwan drama. The consensus was if the speaker is to go, she should do so following the 20th Communist Party Congress later this year. Going before might lead Xi to do something rash, as Glaser and Cooper warn in the NYT.

“We are sleepwalking into a crisis. Leaders on all sides must wake up and find offramps to avoid a dangerous confrontation that neither side wants,” they wrote.

Related: Make sure to read our own ANDREW DESIDERIO’s history of Pelosi’s decades-long muscular stance toward China.

— BLAKE NARENDRA has been appointed the director for legislative affairs at the Department of Homeland Security, covering the Senate. He was previously the senior foreign policy legislative assistant for Sen. EDWARD MARKEY (D-Mass.).

Lt. Gen. BRADLEY SALTZMAN has been appointed to the grade of general and assigned as the next chief of space operations for the U.S. Space Force. Saltzman is currently the deputy chief of space operations for operations, cyber, and nuclear.

— JASON HEALEY is joining the White House’s Office of the National Cyber Director part time to help draft the nation’s next cyber strategy. He’ll continue to work at Columbia University.

— YUN SUN, Foreign Affairs: “What to Expect from a Bolder Xi Jinping”

— NICOLAS PELHAM, The Economist’s 1843 Magazine: “MBS: despot in the desert”

— JACK DETSCH and AMY MACKINNON, Foreign Policy: “Burkina Faso Could Be Next for Russia’s Wagner Group, U.S. Intel Fears”

— House Armed Services Committee, 8:30 a.m.: “Subcommittee Hearing: Service Members’ Reproductive Health and Readiness — with SHARON ARANA, GIL CISNEROS, JACKIE LAMME, GHAZALEH MOAYEDI, THERESA MOZZILLO and SEILEEN MULLEN

— The Middle East Policy Council, 10 a.m.: “109th Capitol Hill Conference: U.S.-Gulf Relations — with BASSIMA ALGHUSSEIN, DANIEL BENAIM, CHAS FREEMAN, LAURA LOCHMAN, JIM MORAN, RICHARD SCHMIERER and KAREN YOUNG

U.S. Department of Defense, 2 p.m.: Secretary of Defense LLOYD AUSTIN welcomes South Korean National Defense Minister LEE JONG-SUP to the Pentagon for an honor cordon and a bilateral meeting.

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, John Yearwood, who says only he can label us a newsletter sponsor of reporting terrorism, not Congress.

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