Today's Headlines and Commentary

Today's Headlines and Commentary

By Jordan Brunner
Thursday, March 2, 2017, 2:08 PM

Last night, the Washington Post reported that Attorney General Jeff Sessions met twice with the Russian ambassador to the U.S. twice during the election, despite denying that he had met with Russian officials in his testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee. The Wall Street Journal adds that Sessions’ conduct during the campaign has been under investigation by officials looking into communications between the Kremlin and members of the Trump campaign. Pressure is now building for Sessions to recuse himself from federal investigations into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, with top congressional Republicans, including House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) and House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-UT), calling for recusal. Top Democrats have gone even further, calling on Sessions to resign for lying under oath and for an independent prosecutor to be appointed. Sessions has denied the allegations, saying, “I never met with any Russian officials to discuss issues of the campaign,” and announcing that he would recuse himself “whenever it is appropriate.”

Foreign Policy reports that the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence’s investigation of Russian interference in the U.S. presidential election will include an examination of any ties between the Trump campaign and Russia. In an unclassified summary, the Committee said that it would focus on four areas, including any “links between Russia and individuals associated with political campaigns.” The Chairman of the HPSCI, Representative Devin Nunes, told reporters that he had seen no evidence that Trump associates had been in contact with Russian intelligence agents, but Representative Adam Schiff, the ranking member on the Committee, sharply disputed that claim, saying it was too early to make an assessment.

The revelations come as the New York Times informs us that as the Trump inauguration approached, senior Obama administration officials rushed to spread information across the government about Russian efforts to undermine the U.S. presidential election and possible contacts between Trump associates and the Russians. Trump’s statements before the inauguration that the intelligence community was trying to discredit his incoming administration stoked fears that the intelligence would be covered up or sources would be exposed by the Trump administration.

The AP writes that White House lawyers, including White House counsel Donald McGahn, have instructed the President’s aides to preserve materials that could be connected to interference in the 2016 presidential election. The instructions, which were sent out on Tuesday, are in response to the request of Senate Democrats who wanted all materials preserved in connection with congressional investigations into Russia’s role in the election. The memo instructs staff to preserve material from Trump’s time in office and, for those who worked on the campaign, from the election as well.

The Times tells us that Jon Huntsman, former ambassador to China and governor of Utah, is under consideration to be the U.S. ambassador to Russia. Huntsman was sent as ambassador to China eight years ago by then-President Obama. Meanwhile, Fiona Hill, a former intelligence officer and outspoken critic of Vladimir Putin, has been appointed as White House senior director for Europe and Russia according to Foreign Policy. The decision by Trump to hire Hill will likely earn bipartisan praise in Congress and may assuage some concerns over the administration’s friendliness with the Kremlin. In Hill’s 2013 biography of Putin, she warned policymakers not to underestimate his strategic cunning and ability to find weaknesses in opponents.

Politico informs us that national security adviser H.R. McMaster has scrapped several positions on the National Security Council created by former national security adviser Michael Flynn, in an effort to streamline the process of NSC decision-making. McMaster did away with two deputy assistant positions, one overseeing NSC’s regional desks and the other overseeing transnational issues. The move is a sign that McMaster has some autonomy to reshape the NSC as he sees fit, though it still remains to be seen if he will remove K.T. McFarland as deputy national security adviser, or Steve Bannon from the Principals Committee of the NSC. Meanwhile, the Hill informs us that Vice President Mike Pence emphasized that the White House will continue using the phrase “radical Islamic terrorism,” despite reports that national security adviser H.R. McMaster had counseled against using the term.

The Hill reports that the House Judiciary Committee appeared to generally agree yesterday in its hearing on the matter that Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act should be renewed, with some reform to account for privacy concerns. Representative Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) praised the provision for going after “foreign bad dudes in foreign nations,” but also expressed concerns “when it comes to American citizens and how they incidentally get caught up in the surveillance.” The Committee made clear throughout the hearing that it would like an estimate from the intelligence community of how much U.S. person data has been captured in 702 searches.

The Post notes that the raid in Yemen two months ago that resulted in the death of Navy SEAL William “Ryan” Owens and a number of Yemeni civilians marked a departure from the more hands-on, deliberative process of the previous administration, with the president approving the raid after a rushed request for approval by Mattis at a dinner meeting after Trump was provided information on the proposed raid earlier that morning. The results of the raid, which prompted Trump to pay tribute to Owens and his widow at his speech to a joint session of Congress on Tuesday, had been foreseen and the potential for problems had been explained briefly to Trump during the 25 to 40 minutes of discussion about it, and also earlier that morning during his daily intelligence briefing. The Times adds that, even with the disastrous consequences, the raid did result in the seizure of computers and cellphones that offer clues about new explosives and tactics al Qaeda is exploring, though it is still unclear how much the information advances the military’s knowledge of the plans and future operations of AQAP.

The raid has complicated efforts by the Pentagon to speed up the authorization of counterterrorism missions by letting field commanders approve them rather than the White House, according to CNN. Pushing decision-making authority below the president for high-risk missions could create problems in oversight problems and questions about presidential responsibility should something go wrong. But White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer has dismissed such criticisms, saying the proposed change in the authorization process “is a philosophy more than a change in policy,” while also acknowledging that “there are certain decisions that have to be signed off by the President.”

The Times tells us that Russian aircraft mistakenly bombed Syrian Arab fighters backed by the United States as their American advisers waited only three miles away, according to Lieutenant General Stephen Townsend, who is leading the American-led task force operating in Iraq and Syria to defeat ISIS. The Russian jets believed they were bombing villages held by ISIS fighters, when in fact the villages had been recently occupied by Syrian fighters. The Russian Defense Ministry stated that the United States had provided the coordinates of American-backed forces prior to the strike, but that it had not bombed any sites designated as such.

The Syrian army has now recaptured the city of Palmyra from ISIS forces with assistance from Russian air strikes, Reuters writes. Syrian forces previously captured Palmyra from the Islamic State in March 2016 only to lose control of the city again several months later.

The Post reports on the discovery of an unmarked grave in a sinkhole outside Mosul where ISIS forces routinely dumped bodies over the course of their occupation of the city. Thousands of people may be buried in the sinkhole, which ISIS forces have rigged with explosives to prevent excavation.

Al Jazeera writes that Egypt’s Court of Cassation has acquitted former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has been acquitted of his alleged involvement in the 2011 killings of nearly 900 protesters during protests against his regime. The Court rejected the demands of lawyers for the victims to reopen civil suits, leaving no remaining option for appeal or retrial. The verdict could see Mubarak walk free, though he has spent most of his time in a military hospital and was transported to court in a stretcher.

Reuters writes that South Korean and U.S. troops have begun their annual Foal Eagle large-scale military exercises to test their defense readiness against the threat of North Korea, which frequently characterizes the drills as preparations for war The military exercise comes amid heightened tensions stemming from the test launch of a ballistic missile last month and the assassination of Kim Jong-nam, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s half brother, which South Korean officials have claimed was done on the orders of the North Korean regime.

The AP reports that an animated Iranian film has been released entitled “Battle of the Persian Gulf II,” which shows Iranian ships obliterating the U.S. Fifth Fleet with rocket strikes in retaliation for the alleged joint U.S.-Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear program. The film comes as tensions rise between the Iranian regime and the Trump administration over the latter’s criticism of the nuclear accord signed in 2015. Iran has also conducted tests of its S-300 missile defense system, which is capable of shooting fighter and bomber planes out of the sky.

ICYMI: Yesterday, on Lawfare

Jordan Brunner flagged papers relating to the House Judiciary Committee’s FISA Section 702 hearing and the testimony from the open panel of the hearing.

Quinta Jurecic posted the video of the hearing.

Matthew Waxman provided a condensed version of the testimony he will give before the before the Senate Armed Services Committee on the international law dimensions of U.S. cyber strategy and policy.

Paul Rosenzweig dug deeper into the GSA-OIG report on federal IT systems.

Peter Margulies described how the revised refugee order shows a clear turn towards legal compliance.

Zachary Burdette analyzed how America’s counterterrorism partners could act as a check on President Trump.

Bruce Riedel examined what’s behind Saudi Arabia’s new diplomatic offensives.

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