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China And Russia, Aligned More Closely, Seen As Chief Security Threat To U.S. (#GotBitcoin?)

The two nations are pouring resources into a ‘race for technological and military superiority,’ intelligence report says. China and Russia, Aligned More Closely, Seen As Chief Security Threat To U.S.

Threats to U.S. national security are expected to grow in the coming year as China and Russia align strategically and seek to compete with the United States and its allies, U.S. intelligence officials said Tuesday.

The U.S. adversaries are pouring resources into a “race for technological and military superiority” that will define the 21st century and are more aligned than at any point since the mid-1950s, an annual worldwide threat assessment produced by the intelligence leaders for the hearing said.

As Moscow and Beijing seek to exert more influence regionally and globally, alliances between the U.S. and its Western allies have weakened, the report said.

“At the same time, some U.S. allies and partners are seeking greater independence from Washington in response to their perceptions of changing U.S. policies on security and trade and are becoming more open to new bilateral and multilateral partnerships,” it said.

Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, FBI Director Chris Wray, CIA Director Gina Haspel and other leaders of the U.S. intelligence community testified Tuesday before the Senate Intelligence Committee about national security threats to the U.S. The annual exercise affords the public a look at imminent challenges facing the country, such as cyberattacks, nuclear proliferation and terrorism.

Some senators appeared taken aback by the assessment that China and Russia are growing closer together, likely to the detriment of the U.S. “That could be a big problem for us,” Sen. Angus King, a Maine Independent who caucuses with the Democrats, said.

The report also said U.S. adversaries are likely already targeting the 2020 presidential election with online influence operations akin to those launched by Russia during the 2016 cycle. The rise of so-called deep fakes, or technology that can create convincing false video and audio, will probably make online influence campaigns more potent, the report said.

“We are now living in a new age—a time characterized by hybrid warfare and weaponized disinformation, all occurring within the context of a world producing more data than mankind has ever seen,” Sen. Richard Burr, the Republican chairman of the intelligence committee, said in opening remarks.

The assessment also raised questions about President Trump’s predictions that he will be able to persuade North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons.

While Pyongyang “has reversibly dismantled portions of its [weapons of mass destruction] infrastructure,” it says, U.S. intelligence “continues to assess that it is unlikely to give up all of its WMD stockpiles, delivery systems, and production capabilities. North Korean leaders view nuclear arms as critical to regime survival.”

While Mr. Trump made withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal—reached in 2015 with the U.S. and five other nations—one of his most prominent foreign policy goals, on Tuesday Mr. Coats said U.S. intelligence officials didn’t believe the Middle Eastern power was developing a nuclear weapon.

“We do not believe Iran is currently undertaking the key activities we judge necessary to produce a nuclear device,” Mr. Coats said.

Ms. Haspel told senators, “They are making some preparations that would increase their ability to take a step back [from the deal],” but “at the moment, technically, they are in compliance.”

In his written statement, Mr. Coats also said that the Islamic State remains a potent force, despite its battlefield losses in Iraq and Syria. Mr. Trump on Dec. 19 that he was withdrawing U.S. troops from Syria, where they were aiding in the fight against Islamic State. Critics, including the top U.S. official coordinating anti-Islamic State efforts, who resigned, said the move was premature and could lead to the terrorist group’s resurgence.

“ISIS still commands thousands of fighters in Iraq and Syria, and it maintains eight branches, more than a dozen networks and thousands of dispersed supporters around the world, despite significant leadership and territorial losses,” Mr. Coats said. “The group will exploit any reduction in [counter-terrorism] pressure to strengthen its clandestine presence and accelerate rebuilding key capabilities, such as media production and external operations.”

The threat assessment also warned that the decades-long U.S. lead in scientific innovation is shrinking, as foreign nations seek to acquire talent, companies, data and intellectual property.

“Many foreign leaders, including Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin, view strong indigenous science and technology capabilities as key to their country’s sovereignty, economic outlook, and national power,” it said.

Meanwhile:

‘We Got Them’: A U.S. Destroyer Hunts For North Korean Oil Smugglers

The USS Milius follows down leads in the East China Sea to deter sanctions busting.

ABOARD THE USS MILIUS—The chase began just after lunch.

An American P-8 surveillance plane had spotted three ships huddled together in the East China Sea. About 80 miles northwest, the USS Milius and a Japanese warship were following a tanker blacklisted by the United Nations for smuggling oil into North Korea.

The Milius broke away, hoping to catch other ships engaged in the illegal activity. Powered by four engines similar to those used in Boeing 747s, the destroyer raced to the site, where two of the vessels were suspected to be secretly transferring petroleum products to a tanker bound for North Korea.

The three ships had all switched off transponders signaling their locations to other vessels, a common tactic for ships engaged in illicit trade.

As the ships came into view two hours later under a bright, clear sky, the Milius picked up excitable, broken ship-to-ship radio chatter in Chinese.

“What did you say? Speak slowly!” said one person.

“I don’t need to anchor,” said another.

“Okay! Okay!”

One of the two smaller ships began to quickly move away from the group as the other loosened its mooring to the tanker. Both of the smaller ships carried Chinese flags. No flag was visible on the tanker.

The Milius’s commanding officer, Cmdr. Jon Hopkins, set a course to pull alongside the tanker.

“We got them,” said a Milius crew member on lookout duty.

For over a year, the United Nations has set tight limits on North Korea’s imports of petroleum products in response to its nuclear-weapons and missile testing. U.S. and U.N. officials say North Korea has evaded the restrictions, largely through ship-to-ship transfers at sea.

To gather information on ships and try to deter sanctions busting, eight countries—the U.S., Japan, South Korea, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the U.K. and France—have provided ships and planes tasked with covering a region of 700,000 square miles where transfers take place. Ships suspected of North Korean sanctions violations can only be boarded by the authorities of a U.N. member state within their own territorial waters.

Over the past year, naval and coast guard ships from those countries have spent a total of roughly 800 days at sea. Surveillance planes have made around the same number of flights over the past year, sending back photos and other information such as radio intercepts. The U.S. conducts around half of all missions.

Late last year, an American command ship, the USS Blue Ridge from the Japan-based U.S. Seventh Fleet, became the headquarters for the eight nations to coordinate surveillance. The information their ships glean is passed back to analysts to look into details such as ship ownership. Apparent sanctions violations are in turn passed to the U.N., which can blacklist shipowners and operators and ban specific ships from international ports.

Surveillance operations are generally kept secret, but from March 30 to April 2, The Wall Street Journal traveled on the Milius as the warship conducted its third deployment this year to track North Korean shipping.

On board, the Journal spoke with dozens of crew at work, over meals and on breaks. While some had little understanding of the U.N. sanctions, most described the mission as supporting a diplomatic resolution to the North Korean nuclear standoff.

“The measure of success will be when we put it [evidence of illicit shipping] forth at the United Nations,” said Lt. Charles Garner, a 26-year-old navigator. “Then we’ll know our minute part of the puzzle is there on the international stage.”

If diplomacy collapses, the Milius could shift to a very different role. The 505-foot-long destroyer is equipped with an array of advanced weaponry, including Tomahawk cruise missiles, and operates the Aegis antimissile system capable of shooting down ballistic missiles such as those developed by North Korea.

Throughout the four-day mission, the destroyer’s crew conducted drills and exercises to ensure readiness, including hand-to-hand fighting on the deck to prepare for a situation in which terrorists or other enemies board the vessel.

As the crew of around 300 began a Saturday evening meal of pizza and chicken wings, the voice of Cmdr. Hopkins came over the public address circuit into the mess hall announcing that the warship was moving into position to follow a North Korean ship. The tanker Kum Un San was being tracked as it traveled down the east coast of the Korean Peninsula and was expected to head for an area of the East China Sea where ship-to-ship transfers are common.

The USS Milius waited near the Kum Un San’s expected route in an area crowded with fishing vessels. During the night the destroyer was forced to make a sudden turn to avoid hitting an unlit fishing boat. For many on board, the memory is still raw of two collisions in 2017 involving Seventh Fleet ships that killed 17 sailors.

“You have a heightened sense of the gravity that each action you take has on the lives of the crew that are sleeping on board,” said Ens. Christina Onianwa, a 22-year-old member of the crew’s night watch.

As the ship’s chaplain held Sunday morning service in the mess hall, the USS Milius and its Japanese escort destroyer Jintsu began following the Kum Un San. The Jintsu had picked up the North Korean ship’s trail earlier.

In ship-to-ship radio traffic heard on the USS Milius, a person on the North Korean ship told the Jintsu it planned to reach the North Korean port of Nampo three days later. Nampo, on North Korea’s west coast, is the country’s main oil terminal.

A report issued in March by a U.N. panel that monitors the implementation of sanctions named the Kum Un San as one of the six ships most active in receiving petroleum products from other ships and delivering them to North Korea. The U.N. has banned the tanker from entering all ports.

As it rounded the peninsula, the North Korean ship was also being monitored by a South Korean P-3 surveillance plane, while a Chinese destroyer followed the American and Japanese ships from a distance of around 12 miles. U.S. Navy officials say Chinese warships commonly shadow U.S. naval vessels in international waters in the East China Sea. The parade of four ships continued through the night, led by the slow-moving Kum Un San.

Early on Monday morning, the USS Milius’s mission changed. The American P-8 surveillance aircraft sweeping through the area had sighted the three other suspicious ships, and Cmdr. Hopkins chose to investigate.

As the U.S. destroyer closed in on the trio, the ships began to separate. Hoses could be seen hanging over the side of the largest ship, a rusting tanker named Oceanic Success, which also dragged along marine fenders, evidence that other vessels had been alongside. Crew members in overalls left the deck as the U.S. warship approached.

Official documents show the Oceanic Success is registered in landlocked Mongolia, owned by a company in Hong Kong and managed by another in Taiwan. Its location transponder was switched off for over a month before the encounter with the Milius, making it hard to determine where it has traveled. Since the sighting its transponder shows it has traveled close to northern Taiwan.

Hugh Griffiths, the head of the U.N. panel, said while it is difficult to say with certainty whether the Oceanic Success has been involved in sanctions evasion, the location where it was seen, its opaque ownership structure and its lack of a transponder signal for several weeks mirror other known instances of North Korean ship-to-ship transfers.

The Oceanic Success has the capacity to transport around 50,000 barrels of motor gasoline, a 10th of the annual limit on petroleum-product imports into North Korea set by the U.N. The U.S. says North Korea last year imported more than seven times that 500,000-barrel cap, and the U.N. panel report in March said North Korea’s ship-to-ship transfers had increased in “scope, scale and sophistication.”

The registered address in Hong Kong for Oceanic Success’ owner, Thousand Sunny Shipping Ltd., is a mail-forwarding company. A person at that company declined to provide further details about the owner. An official at the Taiwan company that manages the ship, Golden Lamp Stand Shipping Safety Management Consultant Co., said the Oceanic Success’ engine and transponder were broken on the day the Journal saw the vessel and declined to answer further questions.

The Oceanic Success is banned from going to North Korea, an official at Mongolia’s ship registry said, adding the ship provides fuel to fishing boats just off the coast of Taiwan.

The identities and ownership of the two ships seen next to the Oceanic Success around 450 miles north of Taiwan couldn’t be established. Both were small tankers.

After Milius crew members took photos of the ships as they scattered, the destroyer slowly began to leave the area and set a course back to the port of Sasebo in southern Japan. As it did so, the Oceanic Success and the two other ships could be seen moving back together again.

“We’ve gathered good intelligence,” Cmdr. Hopkins said. “Our mission is not to stop everything.”

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Your questions and comments are greatly appreciated.

Monty H. & Carolyn A.

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