NEWS AND ANALYSIS:
Senior Trump administration officials voiced concern and surprise this week over telephone calls to a Chinese military leader by Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark A. Milley before and after the 2020 presidential election.
The Washington Post reported this week that a new book by Bob Woodward and Robert Costa reveals that Gen. Milley made two calls to People’s Liberation Army Gen. Li Zuocheng to inform him that the United States had no intention to attack China in the tense days surrounding the disputed American election. Another call reportedly included a promise by Gen. Milley to the Chinese general that the chairman would inform them of any attack, a highly unlikely claim considering secrecy and operational security surrounding military operations.
The calls were made on Oct. 30 and Jan. 8, apparently because senior military officials were worried about President Trump’s mental state in the fierce controversy over his election defeat.
Gen. Milley, through a spokesman, confirmed and defended the calls.
“His calls with the Chinese and others in October and January were in keeping with these duties and responsibilities conveying reassurance in order to maintain strategic stability,” said Col. Dave Butler, the spokesman. “All calls from the chairman to his counterparts, including those reported, are staffed, coordinated and communicated with the Department of Defense and the interagency.”
Controversy over the calls prompted accusations of insubordination and even treason from critics in Congress and elsewhere. Some have called for Gen. Milley to step down.
The chairman has already been under fire from conservatives for defending some of the woke policies of the Biden administration for the military on inclusivity and diversity, such as making the dubious assertion that the ranks of the armed forces are infiltrated by White supremacists.
A senior Trump White House official told Inside the Ring that the phone calls by the general, who was held over as chairman by President Biden, are troubling because they were unknown to Mr. Trump, White House National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and other senior officials closely involved in China policy and strategy at the time.
The senior official also said reports that the general made the calls in response to U.S. intelligence reports of the Chinese incorrectly fearing a U.S. nuclear strike also were unknown to the president and his senior advisers.
“No one was aware of any such intelligence, including from the PDB,” the senior official said, using the acronym for the President’s Daily Brief, the highly classified report that has limited distribution to the president and his most senior aides.
“We were engaged in a whole-of-government approach to China that included pressing Beijing on many fronts,” the senior official said. “These phone calls would have completely undermined that.”
Christopher Miller, the acting defense secretary at the time, told reporters he did not authorize the controversial Milley calls.
Mr. Miller said he did not authorize nor would he have authorized the calls. He called on Gen. Milley to resign immediately.
Other senior officials involved in the most sensitive details of China policy also indicated that they were unaware of the calls until the news reports were published. Matt Pottinger, the deputy national security adviser at the time, and Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia and Pacific Affairs David Stilwell were also out of the loop on the calls.
The former senior official said any such contacts with the Chinese military normally must be “coordinated” at the White House and include notification of senior government officials in both the policy and intelligence communities. A transcript of the phone calls, which also were likely recorded by the Chinese military, should be made public, the former official added.
The newsletter Axios reported Wednesday that then-Defense Secretary Mark Esper, fired by Mr. Trump shortly after the November election, was behind the effort to send a reassuring message to the Chinese.
According to Axios, Mr. Esper directed the Pentagon policy office to send a back-channel message to the Chinese based on Pentagon intelligence that China expected a U.S. attack. The Pentagon sought to dispel the PLA of any notion that the U.S. planned an attack.
The first message was sent by the policy officials and reiterated by Gen. Milley in his calls. The former senior official said there was no intelligence suggesting China was preparing for a U.S. attack, such as moving or readying forces.
“The only thing we were concerned about was a Chinese attack on Taiwan,” the former official said.
The official silence from Gen. Milley is lending credibility to the book’s allegations. However, Mr. Woodward has a record for reporting questionable information in his books.
For example, he claimed during the early 1980s to have held a deathbed conversation with then-CIA Director William Casey about the Reagan administration’s ill-fated Iran-Contra affair involving selling arms to Tehran to raise cash for U.S.-backed Contra rebels in Nicaragua.
White House officials at the time told The Washington Times the conversation could never have happened. Mr. Casey while in the hospital was incapacitated and unable to speak at the time of the alleged hospital room exchange with Mr. Woodward.
Mr. Trump weighed in on the latest Woodward book in a statement calling reports of the calls “fake news.”
“If the story of “Dumbass” Gen. Mark Milley … is true, then I assume he would be tried for TREASON in that he would have been dealing with his Chinese counterpart behind the president’s back and telling China that he would be giving them notification ‘of an attack.’ Can’t do that!” Mr. Trump stated.
“For the record, I never even thought of attacking China — and China knows that.”
Justice settles UAE hacking case
The Justice Department announced this week it settled criminal charges against three former U.S. intelligence and military officials for providing embargoed hacking services to a company linked to a United Arab Emirates hacking scheme.
Marc Baier, 49, and Ryan Adams, 34, and former U.S. citizen Daniel Gericke, 40, reached a deferred prosecution agreement requiring payment of $1.68 million and restrictions on future activities and employment.
Court documents in the case disclosed that the three men worked for a UAE company that conducted hacking operations for the UAE government from 2016 to 2019. The employment violated International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR) as a defense service requiring an export license from the State Department directorate of defense trade controls, which they failed to obtain.
The three created what prosecutors described as a sophisticated “zero-click” computer hacking and intelligence gathering system. The system was capable of compromising a device with no action taken by the target victim.
The system was used to hack U.S. companies and gain unauthorized access to computers and mobile phones around the world including the United States.
A document in the case said Baier, Adams and Gericke purchased the sophisticated hacking gear and then modified it for their operations for the Emirates’ government. The New York Times has identified the UAE company as DarkMatter.
“This agreement is the first-of-its-kind resolution of an investigation into two distinct types of criminal activity: providing unlicensed export-controlled defense services in support of computer network exploitation, and a commercial company creating, supporting and operating systems specifically designed to allow others to access data without authorization from computers worldwide, including in the United States,” said acting Assistant Attorney General Mark J. Lesko with the Justice Department’s National Security Division.
“Hackers-for-hire and those who otherwise support such activities in violation of U.S. law should fully expect to be prosecuted for their criminal conduct.”
Said Steven M. D’Antuono, assistant director in charge of FBI Washington Field Office: “These individuals chose to ignore warnings and to leverage their years of experience to support and enhance a foreign government’s offensive cyber operations.”
Reuters reported in 2019 that a team of former U.S. intelligence operatives working for the UAE government hacked the iPhones of activists, diplomats and rival foreign leaders using a spy tool called Karma.
The activities highlighted the spread of sophisticated hacking gear and is one of the first known cases of hacker breaking into Apple’s iPhones, which boast greater security than their Android counterparts. The hacking involved a flaw in the messaging system used in iPhones. Apple issued a security update this week to address the flaw.
According to Reuters, Karma allowed the Persian Gulf state to monitor calls made by hundreds of targets beginning in 2016, including the Emir of Qatar.
The three Americans worked with Emirati security officials as part of a hacking unit code-named Project Raven. The project was used to gather photos, emails, text messages and location data from targeted iPhones. The hackers also obtained saved passwords used for later intrusions.
One of the operatives was identified by Reuters as Lori Stroud, a former National Security Agency official.
“It was like, ‘We have this great new exploit that we just bought. Get us a huge list of targets that have iPhones now,’” she told the new agency. “It was like Christmas.”
• Contact Bill Gertz on Twitter at @BillGertz.