Today's Headlines and Commentary

Today's Headlines and Commentary

By Jordan Brunner
Thursday, February 9, 2017, 1:51 PM

Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch reportedly called President Trump’s recent attacks on the courts “demoralizing” and “disheartening” in a private meeting with Senator Richard Blumenthal (R-CT), the Times informs us. Trump has lashed out at Blumenthal in response on Twitter and has done his best to cast doubt on the accuracy of Blumenthal’s representation of Gorsuch’s comments, though a White House advisor has confirmed Blumenthal’s account of the meeting.

In his first phone call with Russian President Vladimir Putin post-election, Trump disparaged the New START treaty capping U.S. and Russian deployment of nuclear warheads, Reuters writes. When Putin brought up the topic of the treaty, Trump reportedly had to ask his aides what the treaty was before referring to it as a “bad deal” negotiated by the Obama administration. He also discussed his political popularity with the Russian President.

Foreign Policy tells us that France’s Directorate-General for External Security (DGSE) believes that Russia will attempt to help far-right French presidential candidate Marine Le Pen win the French presidential election by flooding the Internet with millions of positive posts about Le Pen and publishing her opponents’ confidential emails. French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian has said that France wants “to learn the lessons from the future” following alleged Russian attacks on the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Wikileaks has already begun publishing compromising documents about Le Pen’s opponents, although they are not the only target of leaks.

The Wall Street Journal tells us that the Pentagon announced that it killed nearly a dozen al Qaeda militants, including Abu Hani al-Masri, a longtime al Qaeda leader and founder of the group Egyptian Islamic Jihad, in airstrikes last week. The Pentagon said that al-Masri had been active in setting up terrorist networks and training since the early 1980s.

The news of al-Masri’s death comes in the midst of fallout over the U.S. raid in Yemen that resulted in the death of a U.S. Navy SEAL and several civilians, a raid that has prompted Yemen to seek tighter coordination over counterterrorism operations with the United States, according to the Journal. Ahmed Bin Mubarak, Yemen’s ambassador to the United States, denied reports that his government had withdrawn permission for the United States to carry out ground missions, but made clear that “in the future there needs to be more coordination with Yemeni authorities before any operation and that there needs to be consideration for our sovereignty.” The New York Times had earlier reported that all ground operations had been suspended until Yemen could “reassess” the situation. The Times continues to stand behind its story.

Meanwhile, the Journal chronicles the delight of Gulf States such as Saudi Arabia over Trump’s new focus on Yemen. Leaders in the Gulf are hoping the new administration will move to counter Iranian influence in the region.

The AP reports that U.S. Army Lieutenant General Stephen Townsend, the commander leading the coalition against ISIS, has said that forces fighting the group should be able to take Raqqa, Syria and Mosul, Iraq within six months. Iraqi forces have already taken the eastern half of Mosul, and Townsend expects the campaign to take back the western half to begin in days. Townsend credited the quicker progress with better coordination and “lessons learned,” on the part of Iraqi forces. But the fight for the west of Mosul will be harder according to Townsend because of the older neighborhoods and narrower streets.

The Daily Beast writes that at a former jihadist-run facility in Mosul, researchers uncovered a cache of documents that show that ISIS buys, builds, and deploys drones. The documents reveal the bureaucratic nature of institutionalized drone operations by the group, along with its ability to adapt when less-than-sophisticated equipment is available.

BBC reports that a Russian air strike mistakenly killed three Turkish soldiers who were supporting Syrian rebels in an effort to capture the city of al-Bab from ISIS. Eleven other soldiers were wounded. Russian President Vladimir Putin has sent condolences by phone to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Tensions between the two country have been high over the last year but have begun to die down as Putin and Erdogan have moved toward collaboration in Syria.

Radio Free Europe reports that the Red Cross has suspended its operations in Afghanistan after a vicious attack killed six workers and saw the abduction of two others in what the organization said was “the worst attack against us” in 20 years. A search operation has been launched to find the other two aid workers, who still remain missing. Red Cross personnel on the mission in Afghanistan, which is the fourth-largest humanitarian program in the world, had repeatedly warned the government that mounting security issues were making it perilous to deliver aid.

Politico informs us that Congress is looking for a war plan from Trump on Afghanistan. Senator John McCain (R-AZ) has stated that he wants “to know why we’re losing, and what we need to do to start winning.” The new president has barely mentioned Afghanistan at all, instead focusing on fighting ISIS in Iraq and Syria. And Defense One tells us that General John Nicholson testified to Congress that Afghanistan needs “thousands” more troops if it is to turn the tide of the “stalemate” that currently exists in the country.

The Washington Post notes that Defense Secretary James Mattis has taken on the role of soothing Americans and allies unnerved by the actions of the president and his top advisors. Mattis has played this role in Seoul, Tokyo, and with Mexican defense leaders in the wake of Trump’s willingness to make statements and tweets which have caused unrest around the world. Given Mattis’s long history of service in the U.S. military and security establishment, and Trump’s willingness to defer to Mattis on national security issues, he may begin to exercise more influence within the administration.

Reuters reports that Trump has broken the ice with Chinese President Xi Jinping in a letter rather than a phone call, writing that he looked forward to developing a “constructive relationship,” with Jinping that benefits both China and the United States, and wished the Chinese people a prosperous Lunar New Year of the Rooster. Trump and Xi have yet to speak since the inauguration, although Xi did call Trump to congratulate him shortly after the presidential election. There are a number of contentious issues that could derail relations given past comments by Trump and members of his new administration, including Taiwan, trade, and the South China Sea.

Reuters also informs us that Russia has called recent movement of NATO troops and military hardware to the Baltic states, Poland, and Germany a threat. Meanwhile, Russia’s anger has also been roused by the United States’s activation of a missile defense site in Romania. The U.S. sees the missile shield as vital to defend itself and Europe from so-called rogue states, such as Iran. But the Kremlin has claimed that the shield is aimed at its nuclear arsenal. Moscow has said that NATO is trying to encircle it close to the strategically important Black Sea, home to a Russian naval fleet.

Foreign Policy informs us that Moscow is reportedly preparing current deputy foreign minister Anatoly Antonov as the new Russian ambassador to the United States. Prior to his appointment as deputy foreign minister, Antonov served as deputy defense minister, where he became the public face of the Russian intervention in Syria to bolster Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. He was also a driving force behind the 2014 intervention in Ukraine.

The Journal tells us that Mikhail Tolstykh, a notorious commander of Russian-backed rebels in Ukraine, was killed early Wednesday by an explosion in his office. He is the latest of at least half a dozen insurgent leaders to have been mysteriously killed far from the lines of conflict. A separatist television station reported that an assailant launched a portable rocket from the street outside Tolstykh’s headquarters. The rebels have blamed the deaths on the Ukrainian government, while the government has claimed that Moscow is ridding itself of rebels who are erratic and hard to control. The Times examines who might be behind the killings.

Politico reports that analysts at the CIA has pushed back against the Trump administration’s desire to designate the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization. Many analysts have warned in a summary for an intelligence report that attaching that label “may fuel extremism,” and damage relations with America’s allies. The document notes that the Brotherhood, which has millions of followers around the Arab world, has “rejected violence as a matter of policy and opposed al-Qaeda and ISIS,” although a small minority of the Brotherhood has engaged in violence. The document seems to put the agency at odds with both the White House and the CIA director, Mike Pompeo, who as a congressman co-sponsored legislation to designate the Brotherhood as a terror group.

ICYMI: Yesterday, on Lawfare

Lisa Daniels and Ed Stein provided a backgrounder on a bill introduced to regulate the president’s ability to appoint advisors to the National Security Council and the NSC Principals Committee.

Ed also examined whether President Trump could levy sanctions against the Muslim Brotherhood.

Carrie Cordero outlined a few quick thoughts on making national security arguments in court based on Washington v. Trump.

Elizabeth McElvein highlighted the deep divisions in popular opinion over Trump’s refugee ban.

Peter Margulies described different facets of the Ninth Circuit’s examination of the refugee ban.

Bobby Chesney annotated the latest draft of Trump’s executive order on Guantanamo detention.

Jack Goldsmith explained the practical need for an ISIL AUMF based on Trump’s draft detention executive order.

Andrew Keane Woods focused on Tallinn Manual 2.0’s application of the law of state sovereignty to cyberspace.

Jonathan Rauch explored the lessons he learned in writing his article for the Atlantic, “Containing Trump.”

Jane Chong flagged the video of the book launch of the Tallinn Manual 2.0 from the Atlantic Council.

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