Today's Headlines and Commentary

Today's Headlines and Commentary

By Jordan Brunner
Tuesday, February 21, 2017, 1:41 PM

The New York Times tells us that President Donald Trump announced yesterday that Army Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster, a widely-respected military strategist known for his service in the Iraq war, will serve as his new national security adviser. McMaster was the favored choice of congressional Republicans like Senator Tom Cotton (R-AK) and Senator John McCain (R-AZ), as well as Defense Secretary James Mattis. Patrick Tucker of Defense One examines how McMaster’s past could shape the way that the U.S. goes to war. Notably, McMaster will remain on active duty as national security adviser.

The Times also informs us that several Trump associates have proposed a peace plan between Ukraine and Russia that outlines a way for Trump to lift sanctions on Russia, even as Flynn and other Trump associates are under investigation by law enforcement, intelligence agencies, and Congress for their connections to Russia. Among those pushing the plan are Michael Cohen, the president’s personal lawyer; Felix Sater, a business associate of Trump’s; and Ukrainian lawmaker Andrii Artemenko, who is trying to rise in a political opposition movement in Ukraine. The Trump associates claim that the plan aims merely to establish peace after three years of conflict, but the proposal also apparently contains evidence of corruption by Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko in an effort to advance Artmenko’s career. The Washington Post adds that Cohen, while acknowledging that the meeting between him and Artemenko took place, has denied that he passed along the plan to Flynn, instead saying that he told Artemenko to mail the envelope to Flynn. The Times has stood behind its account. Slate has more on the proposal and the Russian response to it here.

The AP reports that on Saturday during his remarks at the Munich Security Conference, Vice President Mike Pence said that the Trump administration will “hold Russia accountable,” and that the United States would be “unwavering” in its commitment to NATO. Pence’s address and a series of one-on-one meetings with world leaders, including NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, were designed to calm the nerves of European allies concerned about Russian aggression and President Trump’s comments denigrating NATO.

The AP also tells us that Montenegro’s former prime minister has accused Russia of “destructive” politics in the Balkans following what the country says was thwarted attempt by the Russian government to overthrow its pro-Western government. Milo Djukanovic stepped down in October after the alleged pro-Russian to prevent Montenegro from joining NATO, and said that now pro-Russian opposition parties are ready to use “bloodshed and a coup” to install a pro-Kremlin government.

Politico reports that the Trump administration is expected to release a revised version of the executive order banning entry into the U.S. from seven majority-Muslim countries later this week. The order may drop the indefinite ban on refugees from Syria, but will still keep in place the temporary ban on refugees, and will halt further visas to people from the same Muslim-majority countries listed in the first order. The new order will likely exempt dual citizens and those who already hold valid U.S. visas. Critics fear that even temporary bans will become permanent because refugees, particularly from Syria, may not be able to meet the vetting standards that Trump decides to set in order to lift the bans.

The Wall Street Journal profiles one of the handful of people to review the original refugee ban: Sebastian Gorka, a terrorism researcher and conservative pundit who has been an ardent defender of the ban as targeting countries that “represent the hotbed of primary jihadi activity today.” Gorka is part of the Strategic Initiatives Group, a “shadow” National Security Council that reports to White House chief strategist Steve Bannon and senior White House adviser Jared Kushner. The Post has more on Gorka.

Foreign Policy writes that it has independently confirmed that Trump is finalizing an executive order to keep Guantanamo Bay open. The draft directive, which has been reviewed by officials across the Departments of State and Defense, temporarily bars the transfer of any current detainees and instructs the U.S. military to bring any new detainees, including Islamic State militants, to the prison. The order represents a shift in counterterrorism strategy, with an emphasis on capturing rather than killing suspected terrorists.

Buzzfeed tells us that Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) will soon introduce legislation to prevent Customs and Border Patrol agents from demanding the passwords to online accounts and mobile devices from American travelers without a warrant. In a letter to Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly yesterday, Wyden said that such searches circumvent the right to privacy and “weaken our national and economic security.” A copy of the letter can be found here.

In the Post, Edward Price, who worked for the CIA from 2006 until this month and served as spokesman for the National Security Council, details how a series of actions by the Trump administration, in particular Steve Bannon’s presence on the Principals Committee of the National Security Council, led him to resign from the Agency.

The Times notes that Defense Secretary James Mattis attempted to calm the fears of Iraqis on Monday before an unannounced visit to Iraq, stating that “we’re not in Iraq to seize anybody’s oil.” Mattis’s comments come in the wake of statements by Trump, both on the campaign trail and the day after his inauguration in a speech to the CIA, saying that the United States should have taken Iraq’s oil while we occupied the country in 2003 as part of the effort to overthrow Saddam Hussein, and that the United States may still do so.

The Los Angeles Times reports that the Iraqi Army began a large-scale offensive to seize the Western side of Mosul on Sunday, according to Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Abadi. Sunday’s offensive aimed to bring troops to Albu Seyf, where Iraqi forces expect fierce resistance from ISIS fighters. Iraqi troops appear eager to prosecute the campaign.

Reuters tells us that rebel sources say that CIA-coordinated military aid to rebels in northwest Syria has been frozen since the rebels came under attack from Islamist militants last month. Rebel fighters say that they did not receive an explanation for this cut-off of aid—which includes salaries, training, ammunition, and sometimes anti-tank missiles—though they believe the halt took place to prevent arms from falling into the hands of militant Islamists and will likely be temporary.

Defense News writes that a new weapon has emerged among the Houthi rebels in Yemen fighting the Saudi-led coalition: the drone boat. The craft, which hit a Saudi frigate on January 30, was an unmanned, remote-controlled craft filled with explosives according to Vice Admiral Kevin Donegan, the commander of the U.S. Fifth Fleet and head of the U.S. Naval Forces Central Command. Donegan believes that the production of the boat was “in some way was supported by Iran.”

The Daily Star reports that Senator John McCain, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, met with Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud in Riyadh today, where friendly ties between the two countries were discussed. The meeting between McCain and Salman follows one between McCain and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan over the weekend to discuss Syria, and comes two days before the Syrian government and opposition groups gather in Geneva to for a new round of peace talks.The Guardian adds that McCain, who has earned a reputation as a Trump critic, was recently quoted on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference as saying that suppression of a free press is “how dictators get started,” in response to Trump’s statements that media outlets and newspapers are “the enemy of the American people.”

The Times of Israel informs us that Israeli soldier Elor Azaria was convicted of manslaughter and sentenced by military judges to 18 months in prison for shooting and killing Abdel Fattah al-Sharif, a Palestinian who was lying on the ground wounded and disarmed after stabbing a soldier. Another stabber was killed in the course of the attack, which left one soldier slightly wounded.

The Journal writes that China began suspension of all coal imports from North Korea on Sunday for the rest of the year, ratcheting up a prohibition it installed last April as it pressures the government in Pyongyang to give up its nuclear and ballistic missile programs. The freeze encompasses all incoming North Korean coal shipments that importers had applied for but for which they had not yet received approval. The ramping up of sanctions by China comes as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson urged China’s Foreign Minister to “use all available tools” to confront North Korea’s provocations. Speculation is also mounting over how Beijing might respond to the recent assassination of Kim Jong Nam, the half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

The acting president of South Korea, Hwang Kyo-ahn, has called the assassination of Kim Jong Nam “an intolerable crime against humanity and terrorist act” orchestrated by the North Korean regime, according to the Times. Hwang instructed his government to strengthen vigilance and caution to prevent North Korean attacks, warning that North Korea may try military provocations to distract from the assassination of Nam. The statement follows on the heels of escalating tensions between North Korea and Malaysia, where the attack took place: the North Korean ambassador to Malaysia has called the investigation politically motivated and found fault with the autopsy, claiming the body in question was not even Nam’s.

ICYMI: This (President’s Day) Weekend, on Lawfare

Helen Murillo analyzed whether Attorney General Jeff Sessions should recuse himself from investigations into the Trump administration’s ties to Russia.

Quinta Jurecic posted the Lawfare Podcast: Edward Jay Epstein on “How America Lost Its Secrets.”

Jane Chong highlighted some less-covered themes from Trump’s first press conference of his presidency.

Paul Rosenzweig noted that calls for an investigation of the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia should ask for a special counsel, not a special prosecutor.

Paul posted versions of the DHS Immigration memos that he had received.

Peter Margulies commented on the DHS border memo.

In the Foreign Policy Essay, Stevan Weine described how local law enforcement uses community policing to combat terrorism.

Rick Houghton examined North Korea’s recent ballistic missile launch and its foreign policy implications for Trump.

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