Today's Headlines and Commentary

Today's Headlines and Commentary

By Jordan Brunner
Friday, February 24, 2017, 1:34 PM

CNN tells us that FBI Director James Comey refused a recent request by White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus to publicly knock down media reports about communications between President Donald Trump’s associates and Russians known to US intelligence during the 2016 presidential campaign. A White House official claimed that the request was only made after the FBI indicated to the White House that it did not believe the reporting to be accurate. Such a request by the White House is in violation of procedures that limit communications with the FBI on ongoing investigations.

CNN also reports that the White House is pushing officials in the Department of Homeland Security and the Justice Department to provide information in support of the supposed security rationale behind the executive order banning entry into the U.S. for citizens of seven majority-Muslim countries. The administration rejected an earlier DHS report contradicting the White House’s assertions on the security benefits of the travel ban and now is asking for a revised report, leading to concern within DHS and DOJ over the potential politicization of intelligence.

Speaking at the Conservative Political Action Conference, President Donald Trump reiterated his attacks on the media as the “enemy of the people” and declared that journalists should no longer be allowed to use anonymous sources. This morning, the President tweeted that “classified information is being given to media that could have a devastating effect on U.S. FIND NOW,” though it remains unclear what he was referring to.

At the Washington Post, Josh Rogin writes that acting State Department Legal Adviser Richard Visek’s memo opposing leaks to the press was promptly leaked to the Post, emphasizing the problems faced by the administration in clamping down on leaks. Visek’s memo, written to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, praised the Department’s internal Dissent Channel within the Department and encouraged Tillerson to prevent leaks.

The Washington Post informs us that while Trump referred yesterday to the deportation of undocumented immigrants as a “military operation,” Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly said that “there will be no—repeat, no—use of military force in immigration operations,” and the Department of Homeland Security released a statement clarifying that immigration raids were being carried out by Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials. Kelly’s remarks came as he and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson met with Mexican government officials in Mexico City to discuss coordinating deportations.

A gunman attacked two Indian immigrants and a bystander who tried to intervene in a bar in Kansas yesterday after yelling, “Get out of my country” and reportedly using racial epithets, killing one victim and injuring the other. Authorities are investigating whether the incident was a hate crime. The shooting has raised serious concerns both domestically and internationally over the possible link between poor treatment of immigrants and President Donald Trump’s rhetoric and policies, especially as the shooter was overheard saying that he had “killed two Middle Eastern men.” The Times and the Post have more.

In a wide-ranging interview with Reuters, Trump said yesterday that he wants to ensure that the U.S. nuclear arsenal is at the “top of the pack,” claiming that the United States is falling behind in its weapons capacity. He also claimed that China could solve the problem of North Korea “very easily if they wanted to,” and that he is “totally in favor” of the European Union. Finally, he expressed a preference for a two-state solution to the conflict between Israel and Palestine, but continued to say he would accept whatever made the two sides happy.

Foreign Policy reports that Germany, amid growing threats to its safety and Trump’s questioning of the NATO alliance, is slowly shedding it reluctance to wield military power and will boost the size of its armed forces to nearly 200,000 over the next seven years.

FP also informs us that the Iraqi Army is ahead of schedule as it moves to prosecute its offensive in western Mosul. Backed by U.S. and French airpower, the elite army and police units are hitting ISIS from three directions: All 14 battalions of Baghdad’s elite Counterterrorism Service, or CTS, are pushing from the west, while Iraq’s 9th Army Division is moving in with heavy armor close by and farther south police have secured Mosul International Airport. This is part of a new strategy to confuse the militant defenders of the city, who made the fight to liberate the eastern half of the city a punishing, three-month slog.

The Week reports that Iraq has launched its first airstrike against ISIS in Syria in response to several car bombings carried out by ISIS forces in Baghdad. The strike was reportedly carried out in “complete coordination” with the Syrian government.

The AP writes that a car bomb near the town of Al-Bab, recently captured by Turkish forces from ISIS militants, has killed at least 60. Most of the victims were civilian internally displaced persons who were returning to Al-Bab, while two Turkish soldiers were also killed and three wounded. A suicide car bomb struck outside a security office in Sousian village, killing civilians seeking permits to return home, while a second attack with an IED killed the Turkish soldiers.

The Post notes that Pakistan has launched its first nationwide anti-terrorism campaign to “indiscriminately” eliminate the threat of terrorism from the country. The Pakistani government has authorized the armed forces to enter Punjab province to special authority to hunt down, arrest, and shoot suspected militants. The campaign comes amid a spate of suicide and car bombings have shocked the nation, including a recent attack at a Sufi shrine that killed 86 people. While most of those attacks were claimed by the Afghan-based militia linked to the ISIS, increasingly the hodgepodge of Islamist movements in Pakistan have been viewed by the government as presenting a larger, linked threat to the country.

Reuters informs that the explosion that rocked a Lahore, Pakistan shopping mall yesterday, killing 10 and injuring 32, was probably a gas explosion and not a bomb as previously reported. Punjab Law Minister Rana Sanaullah said that "yesterday's blast was not an act of terrorism,” but rather that it “took place by accident.” He said that “there is no evidence of explosive materials. There were gas cylinders present at the site and there is a strong possibility that the explosion was caused by a gas leak."

The New York Times tells us that the poison used to kill Kim Jong-nam, the half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, was VX nerve agent, which is listed under the Chemical Weapons Conventions of 1997 and 2005 as a chemical weapon. VX nerve agent can be delivered in two compounds that are mixed at the last moment to create a lethal dose, which seems to match with the account by Malaysian police that two women approached Kim and applied poison on their hands to his face one after the other. While the Chemical Weapons Convention bans the use of the chemicals it lists, North Korea is not a party to the Convention, and is among the world’s largest possessors of chemical weapons stockpiles.

The Hill writes that the Pentagon is beginning an assessment of whether the leadership of the National Security Agency and U.S. Cyber Command should be split up. Currently both roles are performed by Admiral Mike Rogers, but lawmakers in the past have debated ending the “dual-hat” arrangement to separate the spying mission of the NSA from the combat and offensive operations mission of Cyber Command. Many feel that the split could be damaging if it happens too quickly, given that the unified command is still dependent on the NSA to function. Pentagon spokesman Captain Jeff Davis said that the Pentagon was looking at the issue, pointing to Defense Secretary Mattis’s recent memo asking for an initial plan to better support information management and cyber operations.

The House Judiciary Committee is set to hold hearings on potentially amending Section 702 of FISA next week. The provision is set to expire at the end of this year and will require reauthorization by Congress to remain in force.

ICYMI: Yesterday, on Lawfare

Stephan Haggard examined the North Korean missile launch, the assassination of Kim Jong-nam, and the recent Chinese ban on North Korean coal imports, and their effects on the U.S.-China relationship.

David Bosco outlined the options that the United States has for responding to ICC scrutiny in Afghanistan.

Email the Roundup Team noteworthy law and security-related articles to include, and follow us on Twitter and Facebook for additional commentary on these issues. Sign up to receive Lawfare in your inbox. Visit our Events Calendar to learn about upcoming national security events, and check out relevant job openings on our Job Board.