Overnight Defense: North Korea warns it could pull out of Trump summit | Warner backs Haspel, clearing way for confirmation | Haley blames Iran, Hamas for Gaza violence

Overnight Defense: North Korea warns it could pull out of Trump summit | Warner backs Haspel, clearing way for confirmation | Haley blames Iran, Hamas for Gaza violence
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Happy Tuesday and welcome to Overnight Defense. I'm Ellen Mitchell, and here's your nightly guide to the latest developments at the Pentagon, on Capitol Hill and beyond.

 

THE TOPLINE: North Korea on Tuesday said a planned summit next month between President Trump and Kim Jong Un is at risk because of joint military exercises between the U.S. and South Korea.

North Korea said it was ending talks with South Korea, and a confusing statement from the country's state news agency strongly suggested that the drills threatened the fate of the historic summit with Trump.

"The United States will also have to undertake careful deliberations about the fate of the planned North Korea-U.S. summit in light of this provocative military ruckus jointly conducted with the South Korean authorities," North Korea's Korean Central News Agency said in a statement first reported by the Yonhap News Agency in South Korea.

The North Korean news agency said the drills between the South Korean and U.S. air forces are an "intentional military provocation" to undermine recent diplomatic talks. 

 

The White House reaction: The White House released a statement on Tuesday afternoon saying it "will look at" North Korea's comments as it moves forward.

"We are aware of the South Korean media report. The United States will look at what North Korea has said independently, and continue to coordinate closely with our allies," press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said.

Earlier, State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said there had been no talks between the United States and North Korea about the statement attributed to the North Korean news agency.

 

The Pentagon reaction: The Pentagon also issued a response to the reports, emphasizing that "the defensive nature" of the drills "has not changed."

"The purpose of the training is to enhance the ROK-U.S. Alliance's ability to defend the ROK and enhance interoperability and readiness," the Pentagon said, referring to South Korea's official name, the Republic of Korea. "While we will not discuss specifics, the defensive nature of these combined exercises has been clear for many decades and has not changed."  

Keep in mind: The drills have been a longtime aggravation for North Korea, which has previously condemned the exercises as acts of aggression.

 

But satellites also show N. Korea dismantling test site: Commercial satellite imagery shows North Korea has begun dismantling its nuclear test site, according to an analysis from a prominent U.S.-based monitor.

"After initial reporting of plans to allow experts and media personnel to observe the closing of North Korea's Punggye-ri Nuclear Test Site, now scheduled for next week, commercial satellite imagery from May 7 provided the first definitive evidence that dismantlement of the test site was already well underway," researchers for 38 North wrote in the analysis posted Monday.

How they know: Among the evidence cited by 38 North is that several key operational support buildings have been razed since its last analysis in April, along with the removal of several small sheds and outbuildings.

 

HASPEL VOTE WATCH: The top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, Mark Warner (Va.), announced Tuesday that he will support Gina Haspel to lead the CIA, all but ensuring that she has the votes to be confirmed.

"I acknowledge that this has been a difficult decision," Warner said in a statement. "I have been frank with Ms. Haspel that I wish she had been more open with the American public during this process."

"However, in both our one-on-one meetings and in classified session before the Committee, I found Acting Director Haspel to be more forthcoming regarding her views on the interrogation program."

Warner noted that he also "take[s] to heart the strong support Ms. Haspel has among rank-and-file members of the intelligence community and from intelligence community leaders who served under President Obama." He said he believes that Haspel "can and will stand up to the President if ordered to do something illegal or immoral--like a return to torture."

 

What's behind his decision: Haspel told Warner that the agency should not have used so-called enhanced interrogation techniques in the years following the Sept. 11 attacks. 

The agency's controversial detention and interrogation program -- and the degree to which Haspel is willing to denounce it on moral grounds -- has become the central focus of the debate over her confirmation to lead the spy agency.

"While I won't condemn those that made these hard calls, and I have noted the valuable intelligence collected, the program ultimately did damage to our officers and our standing in the world," Haspel wrote in a Monday letter to Warner.

"With the benefit of hindsight and my experience as a senior Agency leader, the enhanced interrogation program is not one the CIA should have undertaken."

 

Haspel's other backers: Just minutes after Warner's announcement, Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.) also announced that she would support Haspel, followed later by Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) -- bringing the total number of Democratic votes in support up to five and appearing to clinch her confirmation.

One red-state Democrat, though, came out in opposition on Tuesday - Alabama Sen. Doug Jones. "We must choose leaders that consistently embody our highest ideals, rather than our darkest moments," Jones said in a statement.

 

Two Republicans -- Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) and Rand Paul (Ky.) -- have announced their opposition to Haspel and Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) has remained on the fence.

 

Why the opposition: Haspel's nomination has been bitterly controversial thanks to her involvement in the agency's detention and interrogation program in the years following Sept. 11. The agency has since disavowed the use of so-called enhanced interrogation techniques, now widely considered torture.  

 

A veterans groups urges Senate to block Haspel: A progressive veterans advocacy group is seizing on Arizona GOP Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCain15 senators miss votes despite McConnell's criticism of absentees What crime did Manafort allegedly commit? Primary challenge to Trump? It could help him in 2020 MORE's opposition to CIA Deputy Director Gina Haspel leading the spy agency as it urges senators to sink her nomination

VoteVets is releasing a new TV ad asking lawmakers to "stand with John McCain" and reject Haspel's nomination. 

"The conscience of the Senate. ... Stand with John McCain against torture. Block Haspel," the narrator says in the ad, which was obtained by The Hill before its release.

The ad will run in Washington, D.C., during MSNBC's "Morning Joe," CNN's "New Day" and Fox News's  "Fox & Friends" on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday mornings as part of a $25,000 ad buy.  

The Senate Intelligence Committee will vote Wednesday on Gina Haspel's nomination to lead the CIA. 

 

Paul asks Haspel about surveillance of Trump: Kentucky Sen. Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulPaul seeks to cut off Planned Parenthood funds via massive spending bill Arizona GOP Senate candidate defends bus tour with far-right activist Trump plays 'quick round of golf' with Rand Paul in New Jersey MORE (R) sent a letter to Haspel on Tuesday asking for information about any surveillance the CIA carried out on Trump or other candidates during the 2016 election.

In a tweet, Paul wrote that he "sent the @CIA a letter inquiring about Ms. Haspel's involvement or coordination in possible surveillance of then-candidate @realDonaldTrump."

The letter also requests information on whether the agency conducted operations to spy on other 2016 contenders, including fellow Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Bernie Sanders (I-VT), former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and former Ohio Gov. John Kasich (R), as well as Paul himself.

 

IRAN SANCTIONS UPDATE: The United States designated the head of Iran's central bank as a terrorist on Tuesday, accusing him of funneling money to Hezbollah, the Iran-backed militant group.

The Treasury Department said it had imposed sanctions on Valiollah Seif, the bank's current governor, and another senior official, Ali Tarzali, the assistant director of the bank's international department, labeling them both as "specially designated global terrorists."

"The United States will not permit Iran's increasingly brazen abuse of the international financial system," Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said in a statement. "The global community must remain vigilant against Iran's deceptive efforts to provide financial support to its terrorist proxies."

 

And Haley lashes out at Iran: Nikki HaleyNimrata (Nikki) HaleyTreasury retweets Trump, possibly violating campaign law UN human rights chief: Trump’s anti-press rhetoric is ‘very close to incitement to violence’ Who guards the guardians? MORE, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, lashed out at Iran on Tuesday, calling the country the "common thread" that connects violent incidents in the Middle East.

Speaking at a U.N. Security Council meeting to discuss recent clashes between Palestinian protesters and Israeli forces on the Gaza border, Haley sought to cast blame on Iran for supporting the militant Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, which encouraged demonstrators on Monday to rush the fence bordering Israel. 

"In recent days, Hamas terrorists, backed by Iran, have incited attacks against Israeli security forces and infrastructure. That is violence that should occupy our attention," Haley told Security Council members.

"The common thread in all of this is the destabilizing conduct of the Iranian regime -- a regime that insists on promoting violence throughout the Middle East while depriving its own people of basic human rights."

 

European, Iranian officials meet. European foreign ministers met with their Iranian counterparts Tuesday for talks on preserving the multi-nation Iran nuclear agreement following the Trump administration's withdrawal.

 

ON TAP FOR TOMORROW

The House Veterans' Affairs Committee will hear from fellow House members on their priorities for VA policies for fiscal 2019 at 10 a.m. at the Cannon House Office Building, room 334. 

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee will hear from outside experts on a proposal for a new force authorization for the fight against ISIS at 10 a.m. at the Dirksen Senate Office Building, room 419. 

The Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Homeland Security will hear from homeland security officials on drug enforcement activities and national security at 2:30 p.m. at Dirksen 419. 

Army Secretary Mark Esper will speak at the Center for a New American Security on the Army's modernization strategy at 2:30 p.m. in Washington.

 

ICYMI 

-- The Hill: Pompeo is lifting the hiring freeze at the State Department

-- The Hill: Watchdog: Pentagon gave inaccurate numbers on size of Afghan forces 

-- The Hill: Navy predicts 'period of uncertainty' in Gulf after Trump's withdrawal from Iran deal

-- The Hill: Trump administration eliminates top cyber post: report

-- The Hill: Palestinian envoy recalled from Washington over Israeli embassy move

-- Defense News: Lawmakers seek $7.5 billion to counter China's rise