Today's Headlines and Commentary

Today's Headlines and Commentary

By Jordan Brunner
Friday, February 17, 2017, 1:58 PM

CBS News tells us that retired Vice Admiral Robert Harward turned down President Donald Trump’s offer to replace Michael Flynn as national security adviser last night, leaving General Keith Kellogg as acting national security adviser, and depriving the administration of a top candidate for the critical foreign policy post. A friend of Harward’s said that his reluctance to take the job stemmed from the chaos roiling the White House and that he called the offer a “shit sandwich,” while two Republican officials said that Harward would only take the offer if form his own team and if lines of authority were clear, conditions that were not fulfilled by the White House. Harward specifically wanted deputy national security adviser K.T. McFarland removed, only to be rebuffed by the White House. Trump tweeted this morning that Kellogg is “very much in play” for the role, along with “three others,” whom he did not name. Reuters writes that retired General David Petraeus, General James Jones, and General Keith Alexander may be in consideration.

As the search for Flynn’s successor continues, the Washington Post informs us that Flynn denied discussing sanctions with the Russian ambassador to the United States when being questioned by FBI investigators, contradicting the contents of intercepted communications collected by intelligence agencies and putting Flynn in danger of prosecution for lying to the Bureau. He later followed that denial by saying that he did not know if he had discussed sanctions. However, CNN reports that barring new information, the FBI is not expected to pursue charges against Flynn barring new information.

The AP reports that a draft Department of Homeland Security memo shows that the Trump administration may be considering a proposal to mobilize as many as 100,000 National Guard troops to round up “unauthorized immigrants.” Administration officials denied that such a proposal was being considered. The memo, which was written in the name of Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly, is addressed to the then-acting heads of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and U.S. Customs and Border Protection as guidance to implement President Donald Trump’s executive order signed on January 25th on immigration and border security. The troops would be activated under a revived state-federal partnership program, with states being allowed to search, identify, and arrest any unauthorized immigrants.

Politico writes that the White House has dismissed six staffers for failing an FBI background check. Some of the aides were “walked out of the building by security” after not passing the SF86, a questionnaire for national security positions that is needed for a security clearance to work in the White House. One of those dismissed was Caroline Wiles, the daughter of Trump’s Florida campaign director Susan Wiles, who will likely receive another position in the Treasury Department.

The Post tells us that key members of Trump’s national security team, including Vice President Mike Pence, Defense Secretary James Mattis, and Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly, are leading the U.S. delegation to the Munich Security Conference beginning today. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the U.N. Secretary-General, and the NATO Secretary-General are among the group of more than 30 heads of state and government and 80 foreign and defense ministers expected to attend. With Pence likely to speak tomorrow, participants will seek clarity from him on the administration’s stances on Russia, NATO, the EU, free trade, human rights, the Iran nuclear agreement, relations with China, and the Syrian conflict.

The Wall Street Journal reports that German Chancellor Angela Merkel stressed the importance of close intelligence cooperation between Germany and the United States in a rare appearance before a parliamentary committee investigating the work of U.S. and German intelligence services, saying she was confident it would continue under Trump. Merkel specifically pointed to the threat of militant Islamism as an ongoing reason for intelligence cooperation.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson appeared for the first time in his public capacity at the G20 summit yesterday, signing a joint statement with South Korea and Japan condemning the recent North Korean missile launch and meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. Tillerson stated that United States and Russia “don’t see eye to eye” and urged the Kremlin to de-escalate the situation in eastern Ukraine, the Post writes. Meanwhile, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joseph Dunford met with his Russian counterpart yesterday in Azerbaijan to discuss improving military communications to avoid air accidents over Syria. It is not clear if this signals a thaw in relations with Russia, or just tweak to tightly constrained communications.

With Tillerson in Bonn, Germany, the State Department laid off much of the staff for the Deputy Secretary of State for Management and Resources and the Counselor offices, according to CBS News. These staffers in particular are often the conduit between the Secretary’s office and the country bureaus, where regional expertise is centered.

On that note, the Guardian tells us that Tillerson finds himself sidelined by the White House, with State Department officials being forced to call foreign diplomats to learn the views of the White House on key policy issues because they have better access to Trump’s immediate circle of advisers. While Tillerson has been able to sooth nerves at the State Department by consulting widely with regional and country experts, he has found himself largely supplanted on foreign policy decision-making by White House chief strategist Steve Bannon and senior White House adviser Jared Kushner. The public voice of the State Department has fallen silent, with no daily press briefings to announce U.S. views and policy on world events, and Tillerson has also not been able to chose his own staff: Elliot Abrams, Tillerson’s pick for deputy Secretary of State, was rejected by the White House due to Abrams’ criticism of Trump during the campaign.

The Intercept notes that no one from the Trump administration attended the annual RSA cybersecurity conference in San Francisco. Obama administration officials frequently attended the conference in the past. This year, panels discussing cybersecurity policy were forced to work off of leaked drafts of an executive order that has yet to be released by the administration.

The AP writes that the main Yemeni figure killed in last month’s raid was a tribal leader who was allied with the U.S. and Saudi-backed president of Yemen and had enlisted to fight Yemen’s Houthi rebels. Sheikh Abdel-Raouf al-Dhahab was killed along with 25 other Yemenis, including ten children. One Navy SEAL was killed in the raid, which also resulted in the wounding of six soldiers and the destruction of a military aircraft that crash-landed. A village chief criticized the operation, saying, “The Americans’ information was wrong.”

The AP also reports that a car bomb at a Baghdad auto dealership killed at least 55 people and wounded 60 more yesterday. ISIS has claimed responsibility for the attack, which it announced was targeting Shiites. ISIS has carried out near daily attacks in Baghdad despite suffering losses in Syria and northern Iraq.

The New York Times informs us that a former Syrian rebel who took part in the mass killing of seven captured Syrian soldiers in 2012 was sentenced to life in prison yesterday in Sweden, where he had applied for asylum. Haisam Omar Sakhanh was arrested last March and charged with crimes against humanity under international law based on video evidence provided by a former rebel to the Times in 2013. To justify the prosecution under international law in Sweden, the prosecutors researched the conditions of the civil war in Syria extensively, particularly in Idlib, where the massacre happened. The prosecutors also cited “very good cooperation with various countries,” in prosecuting the crime.

Reuters writes that Russia will share intelligence with the Philippines and train Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s guards. Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said that Russia had invited the Philippines to join a database-sharing system to help combat transnational crime and terrorism, based on past claims by Lorenzana of links between ISIS and Philippines-based militants. Duterte has made strong overtures to Russia and China in recent months, praising Russian President Vladimir Putin’s leadership and condemning U.S. “hypocrisy.”

Buzzfeed informs us that Erik Prince, founder of the private military corporation Blackwater and brother to the new Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, has offered his expertise to support Chinese government objectives and setting up Blackwater-style training camps in two Chinese provinces. The move, which puts him at odds with Trump and could also risk violation U.S. law due to prohibitions against the exportation of military equipment and services to China, is designed to train and deploy an army of retired Chinese soldiers to protect Chinese corporate and government strategic interests around the world. Prince’s company Foreign Services Group’s largest shareholder is an investment fund owned and controlled by the People’s Republic of China.

ICYMI: Yesterday, on Lawfare

Rick Houghton described how Russia’s deployment of prohibited missile platforms threats a landmark INF treaty.

Nima Binara fleshed out when the intelligence community can legally acquire and use intercepted communications involving U.S. persons who are not the government’s target.

Quinta Jurecic posted a reminder about the upcoming event Cybersecurity in the Trump Administration: What Should We Expect?

Daniel Byman laid out the steps that Trump should, but probably won’t, take to combat terrorism.

Ashley Deeks examined foreign constraints on the Trump Administration.

Stephanie Leutert presented her interview with Gabriella Sanchez of the University of Texas on the migrant smuggling dynamics along the U.S.-Mexico border.

Emma Kohse provided commentary on sovereignty issues raised by the Fukushima class action lawsuit.

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