Federal Officers Traveled to Portland as the ‘USS Bonhomme Richard’ Burned

// A U.S. Warship burned, trouble brewed in the South China Sea, Twitter lost control, Federal officers began black bagging protesters in Portland

Welcome back to The Information War, War College’s weekly newsletter about the week’s biggest conflict stories. Here’s a rundown of what we’ve been following, who we’ve been talking to, and why we think it’s all important.

The Fire Down Below

On Sunday July 12, a fire started in a storage area of the USS Bonhomme Richard. The fire burned for more than four days. No one died, but 40 sailors and 23 civilians sustained injuries while fighting the fire. The Navy isn’t sure if the ship will ever sail again and it’s launched an investigation into the cause of the fire.

We won’t know what caused the fire until the investigation is complete, but this isn’t the first time a Navy vessel has caught fire in recent memory, and the possible causes speak to big problems the Navy is facing. In 2012, a sailor who wanted to go home early started a fire with a lighter on the dry-docked USS Miami. In 2017, two high profile crashes killed sailors and revealed a Navy under strain.

The U.S. Navy is understaffed, overworked, and absolutely exhausted. It doesn’t have enough sailors and those it does have are often working so hard they can’t find the time to sleep. The USS Bonhomme Richard was docked at Naval Base San Diego when the fire started and had only a small support crew onboard. “When we were in the shipyards, a lot of people would go on leave,” former sailor Chris Cummings told me. “You have a skeleton crew, which isn’t good when something goes wrong. You have fewer people which means you’re going to have to stand duty more often. You’re going to be tired and fatigued.”

Tired and fatigued is something the Navy can’t afford to be right now.

Prelude to a Kiss

America’s relationship with China is deteriorating.

Washington publicly rejected Beijing’s claim on the South China Sea this week and moved two carrier strike-groups into the territory. Britain says it’s sending its HMS Queen Elizabeth to join its American allies. Later in the week, OSINT folks online noticed the presence of Chinese flanker jets on Woody Island in the Paracels.

At the center of the tensions are various man-made islands China has constructed in the South China Sea as a means of expanding its influence over trading and shipping routes in the area. Some of the islands have air bases. Vietnam, the Philippines, and other U.S. allies in the region see building the islands as an act of aggression.

Tensions between the United States and China over the South China Seas aren’t new, but the official rejection of China’s claims in the area come at a time when Trump is looking for distractions from domestic squabbles. China, as always, is one of his favorite distractions. Asked about a pending trade deal by CBS, Trump said the ink wasn’t dry on the deal, “and they hit us with the plague.”

“How will you hold the Chinese government accountable for Covid-19?” CBS asked.

“You’ll see,” Trump said. “You’ll see. It’s not for you, it’s for me.” 

Also this week, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tweeted an image of his dog alongside a Winnie the Pooh doll. It seems innocuous, but Winnie the Pooh is banned in China because the lovable bear is used to mock Chinese President President Xi Jinping — there’s something of a resemblance between the two.

There’s no way to know if Pompeo’s tweet is a simple dog picture or an expert-level troll, but it’s hard to believe Pompeo doesn’t know that the leader of America’s biggest rival hates Christopher Robin’s best friend.

Sure, it’s just Twitter, but Pomepo is a political figure and what he says—even online—matters.

Escalation by Tweet

A Twitter hack reminded us of the vulnerability of online discourse this week. On Wednesday night, high profile Twitter accounts from people such as Bill Gates and Elon Musk started asking people for Bitcoin. Twitter responded by shutting down verified accounts. It turned out that hackers and Twitter employees had collaborated using a dashboard that allows Twitter employees to take control of accounts.

This is an international security nightmare. Thankfully, the hackers were just asking for Bitcoin, but the potential for ill-intentioned political actors to use a similar hack to stoke international tensions is a real possibility. The same day as the hack, researchers at King’s College London published Escalation by Tweet, a paper exploring Twitter’s potential to start a war.

There’s a tendency to see online speech as “unofficial,” even when it’s coming from official sources. The argument is that if it happens online, it isn’t real. But our online lives are an extension of the real world, not a separate space. What happens online has consequences in the real world and vice versa.

Just because the method of communication is new doesn’t mean it isn’t powerful. “There’s a funny analogue to this,” Jeffrey Lewis, Director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Project at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, told me.

“When the Soviets declared war on Japan at the end of World War Two, they notified the Japanese ambassador in Moscow on the eighth of August. Basically saying that they would be at war on the ninth.”

“The Japanese ambassador asked if he could cable that information back to Japan. As far as I can tell, there's no record of that cable ever arriving in Japan. When the war started, the Soviets announced it with a radio broadcast and then the tanks started rolling in.” 

“The Japanese literally have this discussion of, ‘You know, there's been this radio broadcast that the Soviets have declared war on us. What do you think Moscow means?’ And somebody else is like, ‘I think it's pretty clear what they mean.’ That's people not exactly understanding changing communication. Whether it's on nice paper or a cable or it’s a radio broadcast, the tanks are still rolling in.”

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Disappeared on the Streets of Portland

The week began with a fire aboard a Navy ship and ended with federal officers rounding up protesters in Portland. After more than 50 days of protest, unidentified troops in unmarked cars began disappearing protestors off the streets of Portland.

The stories and videos are the same. Federal officers dressed as if they’re ready for deployment in Afghanistan approach protesters on the street and hurry them off to an unmarked vehicle. They do not identify themselves, do not prove their authority, and list no charges.

The agents are, likely, members of Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) operating at the behest of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). The legality of their actions is in question, civil and law enforcement authorities in Portland have told them to leave, and the city is suing the Trump administration to get it to stop.

As justification for the “arrests,” acting DHS Secretary Chad Wolf released a list of the alleged crimes of the apprehended. The list of alleged crimes is a grab bag of petty property damage and graffiti. It does not justify the flagrant disregard for civil rights occurring on the streets of Portland. There we’ve said it.

Footage from recent protests showed federal authorities beating a man in a Navy sweater with batons amid a cloud of tear gas. The feds followed the baton with pepper spray. Unphashed, the man in the Navy sweater walked away from the violence and flipped the officers the bird.

He is Christopher David, a 53-year old former Navy Seabee. “That oath of office is essentially swearing loyalty to the Constitution of the United States, and what they're doing is not constitutional anymore,” David told Portland Tribune.

Angry Planet

The Pentagon banned the use of Confederate symbols this week. It’s a good step, but the legacy of the Confederacy in the American Military is deeply ingrained and goes well beyond flags and base names.

It’s the 75th anniversary of the Trinity test, the first detonation of a nuclear bomb. Watch the test in HD and learn why J. Robert Oppenheimer, who led the secret effort to develop the Bomb in Los Alamos, NM, was both entranced and horrified.

Persecution of the Uighurs continues in China and Foreign Policy argues that the world should call it what it is—high tech genocide.

Over at The New Republic, Iraq War vet and novelist Matt Gallagher explored the literature and politics of veterans writing about conflict. “In war, the only thing worse than picking a side is evading the choice.”

The ACLU thinks that the U.S. Army esports team may have violated the first amendment when it banned people from its Twitch channel for asking about US war crimes.

What we’re reading

I’m working my way through Richard K. Morgan’s The Dark Defiles, the third book in a fantasy trilogy that’s about the burden of military command in a world where elves are eldritch horrors.

Jason’s read it and approves.

Putin’s People, Everything Was Forever Until It Was No More, and Say Nothing: A True Story Of Murder and Memory In Northern Ireland are still on the table, being moved through at a slow pace.