Editor’s Note: Samantha Vinograd is a CNN National Security Analyst. She served on President Obama’s National Security Council from 2009-2013 and at the Treasury Department under President Bush. Follow her @sam_vinograd. The views expressed in this commentary are her own.
Modeled on the President’s Daily Briefing, which the director of national intelligence prepares for the President almost daily, I am providing a glimpse of the kind of intelligence assessments that are likely to come across the desk of the President of the United States this week.
Remember the titan
President Xi Jinping probably didn’t wake up ahead of Sunday’s vote extending his term limits in a nervous state. The National Party Congress’ vote on an amendment to the Chinese constitution that extends his reign indefinitely was all but guaranteed. The Communist Party, which controls all real decision making in China, reportedly agreed to this change during its Politburo meeting several months ago, and the National Party Congress, which is authorized to amend the constitution, had to vote to make the actual change official. The party congress has about 3,000 delegates elected from around China, but 70% of them, including most senior party congress members, are Communist Party officials, so the National Party Congress really rubber stamps party decisions. And Sunday was no different.
With the vote behind him, Xi has a busy agenda to dive into, particularly regarding North Korea. Chinese pressure on Kim, including through sanctions that have reduced bilateral trade by billions of dollars, is historic, and China’s reaction to a US-North Korea meeting has been positive. So with Xi’s new lease on life, his leverage over Kim – and global affairs more generally – may have increased. The head of South Korea’s National Security Office, who met with Kim and has been instrumental in brokering the reported talks between the United States and North Korea, will meet with Xi on Monday.
From Russia, with love
Russia’s attacks against US interests at home and overseas are ongoing, and there’s no end in sight. With just under a week until his “election,” Vladimir Putin continues to pursue a multipronged attack that will increase in scale and scope as he feels more emboldened by his fourth presidential term. The Russian threat matrix is expanding and includes new tools this week:
● Information warfare: In an interview with NBC’s Megyn Kelly, Putin continued his information warfare campaign against the United States by spreading misinformation about his role directing attacks against the United States. And he did this despite the intelligence community assessing that he personally orchestrated an election interference campaign.
● Targeted assassination attempts: After deploying 180 troops to the scene of the crime, British authorities are still trying to determine who is behind the attempted assassination – via a nerve agent – of an ex-Russian double agent and his daughter. The incident is eerily reminiscent of the assassination of former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko, who died after drinking tea laced with highly radioactive polonium-210 in a London hotel in 2006. A UK inquiry found that Putin likely ordered the attack on Litvinenko, which the Russians denied. Similarly, the Russians are denying any involvement in the latest nerve agent attack.
● Cyberspace: It is likely that Russian analysts noted your acknowledgment of Russia’s ongoing efforts to attack the United States election systems during a joint press conference with the Prime Minister of Sweden. You said that the administration is working to counteract any interference in elections in 2018 – an indication that the activities that the intelligence community has repeatedly raised the alarm bells on have not ceased.
Good morning, Pyongyang
A potential meeting between a sitting US President and the North Korean leader (a crown jewel that successive North Korean leaders have pursued) is dominating headlines. The National Security Council is likely working overtime to identify whether the reported North Korean “commitment to denuclearization” is real or a ruse. This isn’t our first rodeo. The North Koreans have, in the past, used negotiations to get concessions, and that’s where your reliance on the intelligence community will be critical.
Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats said last week that “hope springs eternal” but expressed caution. Regardless, whether Kim is actually open to denuclearizing is the fundamental question that should drive the US approach to the talks. If he is using the talks to buy time or get public relations points, the US strategy will be very different than if he is in fact under enough pressure that he is ready to negotiate denuclearization. Needless to say there are going to be a lot of cooks in the diplomatic kitchen now that the talks are public.
One dark horse who’s been uncharacteristically quiet is Putin. Russia’s foreign minister said the talks are a “step in the right direction,” but Putin likes to call the shots everywhere, including on the Korean Peninsula. As a longtime patron, Russia has stood by Pyongyang’s side, and has accused the United States of provoking Kim on more than one occasion. Russia did allow more sanctions against North Korea to go through, but you also accused Russia of helping the Korean dictator evade those same sanctions weeks after they passed.
The road to Pyongyang probably has at least a pit stop in Moscow, and this is where diplomacy is going to be key. Despite tensions related to Russia’s ongoing attack on the United States, a shared goal of de-escalating tensions on the Korean Peninsula could prove fertile ground for combining efforts, particularly if Putin can help deliver a Kim who actually wants to talk and is willing to take “concrete and verifiable” steps toward denuclearization.
To avoid giving Kim an excuse to back out of talks before they even begin, consistent talking points – across the US government – on what preconditions are required before the Trump-Kim meeting is a good place to start. We haven’t heard the North Koreans confirm the South Korean’s description of what Pyongyang is or isn’t willing to do. But if the decision to proceed with a meeting stands, the US national security team needs to operate from the same sheet of music, or Kim can claim that whatever conditions he agreed to before inviting Trump to meet have been violated.
The (future) King and I
Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia Mohammed bin Salman just wrapped up a trip to Egypt and the United Kingdom, and, as his power grows – alongside his public image – his ability to influence decisions in the United States and around the world is the money question, literally and figuratively.
Notably, while in the UK, he and Prime Minister Theresa May identified a $90 billion bilateral trade target and agreed to the sale of 48 UK Typhoon jets – despite strong criticism of Saudi Arabia’s activities in the region, namely its blockade of Yemen. May took a lot of flak ahead of her meeting with Salman due to concerns over alleged Saudi human rights abuses (the blockade is accused of restricting the delivery of food, medicine, water and fuel into Yemen).
Get our free weekly newsletter
Trump urged the Saudis to lift the blockade in November, but official readouts of the crown prince’s visit to the UK – perhaps a sign of things to come – focused on economic and security cooperation rather than human rights concerns. As Salman’s influence at home and abroad evolves, the use of economic carrots to cloud over areas of concern will likely continue.
The crown prince is scheduled to come to the United States next week, and there should be a balance between continued economic and security partnerships alongside a real discussion on human rights issues in the region.