Return to

Nov. 10, 2016
Notes from the Pentagon

Trump transition battle underway
The stunning upset election of Donald Trump on Tuesday has set off a behind-the-scenes political battle inside the Trump transition team in Washington.

The battle is pitting conservative advisers against moderate Republicans. Both sides are working to take control of the incoming administration by arranging key appointments.

According to sources close to the transition team working in offices at 1717 Pennsylvania Ave., key aides to New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie are seeking to have Mr. Trump arrange the appointments of moderate Republicans, possibly including some of the more than 100 who signed a letter during the campaign vowing never to work for the New York businessman if he was elected president. Some of the former officials who opposed Mr. Trump are now recanting that involvement in the letter in hopes of getting a job in the new administration.

Mr. Trump has vowed that the Republican establishmentarians who opposed him will not get jobs in his administration.

The word from two sources outside the transition team but familiar with discussions is that Mr. Christie may be replaced as the leader of the transition by someone more in line with Mr. Trump’s announced populist policies. The governor is under fire after convictions of two former aides in the traffic scandal dubbed Bridgegate.

The key player in the conservative camp is Sen. Jeff Sessions, Alabama Republican and member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, who is in line to become secretary of defense. Others mentioned for the defense secretary position are former CIA Director R. James Woolsey and moderate Stephen Hadley, who was a national security adviser in the George W. Bush administration. Tidal McCoy, former Air Force secretary in the Reagan administration, is another defense secretary candidate.

The moderates within the Trump camp include Mr. Christie and Sen. Bob Corker, Tennessee Republican and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Mr. Corker is lobbying hard for the plum post of secretary of state, while conservatives are pressing Mr. Trump to name John R. Bolton, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, to the seventh-floor power center at Foggy Bottom. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who led the conservative revolution in Congress during the 1990s, also is hoping for secretary of state or another senior position.

Former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani has been mentioned as attorney general or homeland security secretary. David Clarke, the sheriff of Milwaukee County, Wisconsin, also has been mentioned for the Homeland Security Department post.

Another Trump adviser likely to be named to a senior post is retired Army Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, who could be named White House national security adviser or director of national intelligence.

Military operations against Islamic State fighters in Iraq’s second-largest city are progressing, with tough battles by Iraqi forces and fierce resistance from the terrorists, according to Pentagon officials familiar with reports of the military operation.

Much of the fighting has been taking place along a front in the eastern part of the city, a region that is more ethnically diverse than the dominant Sunni western side.

Iraqi forces, Iranian-backed militias and Kurdish peshmerga forces all are driving toward the Tigris River from the east and have encountered numerous suicide bombing attacks along the way.

The Islamic State has been employing waves of suicide bombers against the advancing military forces.

Leading the assaults for the Baghdad government are specially trained troops known as the Counter Terrorism Service, or CTS, that have been advancing methodically in retaking eastern Mosul neighborhoods.

One of the advancing forces’ recent discoveries was a mass grave near the town of Hammam al-Alil, south of Mosul along the Tigris.

U.S. and coalition aircraft, including bombers, fighters and drones, have conducted tens of attacks on Islamic State fighters, mainly fighting positions and snipers, in the past several days.

Military planners say one key target of the operation to retake Mosul is the airport, located about 12 miles south of the center city.

Pentagon officials said the Islamic State fighters are expected to retreat westward and, as they do, to blow up the five Tigris River bridges leading into Mosul in a bid to slow the advance.

“The hard part is yet to come,” said a senior military officer.

The plan is to encircle the city and then clear it of Islamic State fighters.

Islamic State defenses also include concrete barricades. Intelligence photographs have shown the streets behind the barricades lined with cars — an indication that the fighters are planning to use car bombs against the advancing Iraqi forces.

“They’ve got [improvised explosive devices] implanted along the entire route into the city,” the officer said.

The Pentagon and U.S. intelligence community were directed to expand ties with the communist regime in Cuba under a presidential directive issued by the White House last month.

President Obama said his normalizing of relations with Cuba will replace an “outdated policy” that failed to advance U.S. interests and support reforms in the Cuban state.

“The objective of the new policy is to help the Cuban people to achieve a better future for themselves and to encourage the development of a partner in the region capable of working with the United States to confront regional challenges, such as climate change, disease and illicit trafficking,” Mr. Obama said.

Critics say the policy is naive and likely to strengthen repressive communist rule on the island nation ruled since 1959 by Fidel Castro and now his brother Raul.

Any intelligence cooperation is expected to be difficult since Cuba’s spy services have been conducting aggressive operations against the United States for decades.

Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper testified to Congress in January that Cuba remains a regional hostile intelligence threat for the United States.

“For example, Iranian and Cuban intelligence and security services continue to view the United States as a primary threat,” Mr. Clapper said.

Under the new directive, Presidential Policy Directive-43, spy agencies will have to lower their guard and engage the Cuban intelligence apparatus.

According to the order, the DNI is required to “support broader United States Government efforts to normalize relations with Cuba, with Intelligence Community elements working to find opportunities for engagement on areas of common interest through which we could exchange information on mutual threats with Cuban counterparts.”

The directive does not say how intelligence with the Cubans will be shared.

A DNI spokesman had no comment on the directive.

Former Defense Intelligence Agency counterintelligence officer Scott W. Carmichael said it is ironic that the United States might cooperate on nonproliferation with a nation that once brought the United States to the brink of nuclear war.

“But it’s a good idea,” Mr. Carmichael said. “We do have some common ground with Cuba, on issues of mutual interest and concern, so it makes sense to share information which benefits both countries.”

The Pentagon, too, is being ordered to step up exchanges with the Cuban military.

“The Department of Defense (DOD) will continue to take steps to expand the defense relationship with Cuba where it will advance U.S. interests, with an initial focus on humanitarian assistance, disaster relief, and counternarcotics in the Caribbean,” the directive says.

The White House order calls on the Pentagon to support Cuba’s inclusion in “the inter-American defense system and regional security and defense conferences.” The objective is to “give Cuba a stake in hemispheric stability.”

The commander of the U.S. Southern Command, Navy Adm. Kurt Tidd, said in June that first steps for military interaction with Cuba have involved a meeting in Haiti in September 2015 between a Cuban military medical unit that visited the Navy’s Comfort hospital ship. The two militaries discussed humanitarian activities.

In January, Southcom hosted a Caribbean Nations Security Conference that included Cuba for the first time. The meting in Jamaica included talks on security cooperation.

“The island of Cuba sits directly astride principal north-south trading routes. Those trading routes also happen to be smuggling routes, and Cuba has concerns about illicit trafficking,” Adm. Tidd said.

Further exchanges between U.S. and Cuban militaries will be up to Havana “because they’re not prepared for that degree of openness, frankly, and I think it will take [time] to get to that point,” Adm. Tidd told reporters at the Pentagon.

  • Contact Bill Gertz on Twitter via @BillGertz.

  • Return to