Today's Headlines and Commentary

Today's Headlines and Commentary

By Jordan Brunner
Friday, March 3, 2017, 3:21 PM

The New York Times tells us that after facing a bipartisan firestorm of criticism due to revelations that Attorney General Jeff Sessions met with and spoke to the Russian ambassador to the United States, Sergey Kislyak, twice during the election, he has agreed to recuse himself from investigations involving potentially improper contact between Trump associates and Russian officials. Despite questions on the subject, Sessions did not informed the Senate Judiciary Committee during his confirmation hearings of the contacts. Sessions announcement came as he delivered a terse news conference as top Democrats called for him to resign and top Republicans said he should not take part in any of the on-going investigations into Russian connections to Trump’s campaign team. President Donald Trump defended Sessions and criticized Democrats, saying that the whole affair was “a total witch hunt.” While Trump said he “wasn’t aware,” that Sessions had talked to Kislyak, he claimed that Sessions should not have had to recuse himself. The disclosure has deepened questions about Russia’s involvement in the 2016 U.S. presidential election and shows increased tension between the White House and the Justice Department, where top officials counseled Sessions to recuse himself.

The Hill informs us that Senators Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Richard Blumenthal (R-Conn.), both members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, are pushing for Sessions to testify again before the panel on his meetings with Kislyak. Sessions promised during his press conference that he would send the Committee a letter to “explain this comment for the record.” But Blumenthal is not satisfied with the letter, because “it is not under oath. It is not subject to questioning.” Blumenthal also vowed to make Sessions resign if his answers were not credible.

Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and a senior White House adviser, also met with Kislyak during a December gathering at Trump Tower facilitated by Michael Flynn according to the New Yorker. The aim, according to the White House, was to establish “a more open line of communication in the future.” The meeting adds to the emerging picture of contacts between Trump associates and Russia. The Times has more here.

Meanwhile in Moscow, CNN reports that the Russian Foreign Ministry has angrily rejected allegations that Kislyak is a spy. Amid reporting that Kislyak is considered by the U.S. intelligence community to be one of Russia’s top spies and a top spy recruiter, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova dismissed media reports about the meetings between Sessions and Kislyak as “shameful,” and an “attempt at total misinformation,” while calling Kislyak “a well-known, world-class diplomat.”

Politico writes that Representative Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), the ranking Democrat on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, accused FBI Director James Comey of withholding crucial information about the FBI probe into Russian interference in the election and raised the prospect that the HPSCI might subpoena Comey. Schiff argued that the Committee can’t thoroughly do its job if the Justice Department or the FBI “is unwilling to tell us what they indeed looked at, what leads they have followed, where they have found substance and where they have not.”

Darren Tromblay examines numerous failures and repeated missteps by the FBI in developing its IT infrastructure due to broader cultural deficiencies in the Intelligence and National Security Journal.

The Washington Post notes that hackers accessed the private AOL email account that Vice President Mike Pence used while he was governor of Indiana. The private email account was reportedly used for to conduct government business, including corresponding about potentially sensitive issues of homeland security. Pence’s press secretary Marc Lotter said that Pence’s use of a personal email was consistent with the practice of past governors. After the account was hacked, it was shut down and Pence began using a second AOL account.

The Intercept writes that former CIA analyst Nada Bakos, who was assigned to work on the Bush administration’s attempt to link Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda, warns that the Trump administration may be adopting the same model of “alternative intelligence,” that led to the Iraq War. Bakos is concerned that the approach that the administration seems to be taking, which has the underlying expectation that intelligence agencies will toe the line according to what is wanted rather than the reality on the ground, will start to politicize intelligence and the structure of the intelligence community.

Defense News informs us that national security adviser H.R. McMaster will make a rare appearance before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday to testify before the committee in a closed session. McMaster has decided to remain on active duty as national security adviser, which means that he will need to be confirmed in his rank for his new civilian job. Senator John McCain (R-AZ), the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, has said that the session will be “more of a meeting than a hearing,” due to its low-key style. The appearance comes at a loaded time for the National Security Council. Not only do questions continue to swirl around the connections of Trump associates to Russia, but the presence of Steve Bannon on the Principals Committee of the NSC has alarmed government officials and members of Congress, including McCain, and could be the subject of questions to McMaster.

The Navy Times tells us that on a visit to the yet-to-be commissioned U.S.S. Gerald R. Ford aircraft carrier, Trump told sailors and shipboard workers that he would rebuild the U.S. Navy, including adding more aircraft carriers to bring the current number of 10 up to 12. “Our carriers are the centerpiece of American military might overseas,” Trump said in a speech in which he praised important aircraft carriers of the past, and said that there was “no competition” for such vessels. Foreign Policy adds that Trump’s buildup for the Navy and other service branches threatens to gut roughly ten percent of the Coast Guard’s already cash-strapped budget, which Representative Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) warns could cripple the under-resourced department.

Politico reports that the White House is pushing back against Defense Secretary James Mattis’s pick to fill the role of undersecretary of defense for policy, Anne Patterson. Patterson, who is the former U.S. ambassador to Egypt and was criticized for becoming too close to the regime of former Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi, would be the fourth most senior person in the Pentagon if allowed to fill the position. Patterson has never held a Defense Department position, having previously been U.S. ambassador to Colombia and Pakistan, and the assistant secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs. The White House also reportedly rejected Mattis’s pick for his deputy, Michele Flournoy, who served as as undersecretary of defense for policy in the Obama administration.

The Military Times notes that, due to Vincent Viola walking away from the position of Secretary of Army due to conflict of interest concerns, at least four names have now emerged as potential replacements. The four are former Representative Chris Gibson of New York, Arkansas Lieutenant Governor Tim Griffin, former Representative Duncan L. Hunter of California, and Representative John Shimkus (R-Ill.).

Defense News writes that Russian General Valery Gerasimov, Russia’s top general, spoke with his NATO counterpart Czech Army General Petr Pavel for the first time since NATO suspended a dialogue with Russia over its annexation of Crimea in 2014.

Armament Research Services has released imagery analysis and conducted interviews that indicate that ISIS conducted nearly 200 attacks with unmanned aerial vehicles in February of 2017. Bellingcat adds that Iraqi Federal Police are using their own drones to strike back, using modified ammunition.

The Wall Street Journal reports that ISIS built a training camp, nicknamed Palmyra, in an old railway tunnel in Mosul that stretched more than a mile long in order to shape new recruits into seasoned fighters, according to Iraqi military officials who uncovered it. The tunnel underwent extensive renovations, with tracks ripped out to make room for equipment, including an obstacle course complete with barbed wire and walls, as well as a shooting range and a small mosque. The well-equipped facility is the largest elite camp discovered so far in the offensive to dislodge ISIS from the city of Mosul.

The AP examines the different groups currently converging on Raqqa, Syria, such as Kurdish militias, Turkish troops, Syrian Army troops, U.S. special operations forces, and Russian troops.

The Post tells us that the United States conducted a total of 25 airstrikes yesterday against al-Qaeda targets in Yemen with manned and unmanned aircraft, in another sign of the Trump administration’s expansion of the counterterrorism campaign there. The military has been granted temporary authority to conduct intensified air strikes against AQAP in some areas of Yemen. The airstrikes follow the January 29th raid that resulted in the death of Navy SEAL Chief Special Warfare Officer William “Ryan” Owens and numerous civilians, and come as the United States seeks to step up its approach to countering militancy in Yemen given that AQAP is seen by U.S. officials as one of the most dangerous militant threats they face. The January raid yielded hundreds of “contacts” that the National Media Exploration Center is now taking action to locate and monitor, some of which are believed to be in the West but not the United States, according to CNN.

The AP writes that the Pentagon wants to expand operations in Somalia in the fight against Al-Shabab, in order to stem the constant suicide bombings and attacks against Somali hotels and military targets perpetrated by the group. Steps would include increasing assistance by U.S. Special Forces to the Somali National Army and giving the U.S. military more authority to launch preemptive strikes. But the Trump administration is likely to find such efforts difficult and expensive.

The Times reports that the Malaysian Foreign Ministry said yesterday it was “greatly concerned” by the use of VX nerve agent, a banned chemical weapon, to assassinate Kim Jong-nam, the half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, and has called on the international community for assistance in responding. If there is compelling evidence that North Korea used the chemical to assassinate Kim, the United States and allies can push for a Security Council resolution condemning the killing and sanctions. Given that North Korea has already been under heavy sanctions for decades, any action will be largely symbolic. North Korea continues to deny the charge, insisting that Kim died of “heart failure.”

ICYMI: Yesterday, on Lawfare

Susan Hennessey and Helen Murillo described the rules of congressional investigations and President Trump’s growing Russia problem.

Benjamin Wittes told the story of Israeli General Dov “Fufi” Sedaka in his efforts to negotiate with West Bank Bedouin tribes.

Peter Swire and Deven Desai presented a “qualified Single Point of Contact” approach for India and Mutual Legal Assistance.

Ryan Scoville offered a closer look at congressional foreign travel.

Nora Ellingsen focused on the second material support arrest of this year in her examination international terrorism prosecutions.

Ben called on recent college graduates to come work for Lawfare as an associate editor.

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