Today's Headlines and Commentary

Today's Headlines and Commentary

By Jordan Brunner
Tuesday, March 7, 2017, 2:25 PM

Wikileaks has released a large collection of CIA documents reportedly describing software tools used by the agency to hack a wide variety of devices and platforms, the New York Times reports. The organization claims that the document dump, which contains information dated from 2013 through 2016, is the first of a series of planned releases. If the documents prove to be authentic, which they appear to be so far, their leaking would represent a major blow to the CIA and the latest in a series of leaks that have challenged the intelligence community.

Yesterday, President Donald Trump has signed a new version of his travel ban that is scaled-back to address some of the legal challenges of the original, including leaving Iraq off the list of Muslim-majority countries targeted and not applying to those with valid visas and lawful permanent residents. The order suspends the admission of refugees to the United States for 120 days and caps annual admission at 50,000. Its fate is likely to hinge on whether the courts accept the justification of national security put forward by the Trump administration, or if they see it as a dressed up version of the old order. The Washington Post provides a breakdown of the changes in the order here, while the New York Times tells us that Muslims in the Middle East still see the ban as a slap in the face to Muslim community. And in the wake of the new ban, Nigeria is instructing citizens to avoid any non-urgent travel until Washington clarifies is immigration policy completely, after numerous incidents in which Nigerians have been denied entry into the United States. Nigeria is not included on the list of countries from which entry into the United States is suspended.

Now that the new travel ban executive order is out, FedScoop informs us that IBM CEO Sam Palmisano, who was briefed by members of the White House, has said that the new cybersecurity executive order will be out within the week. Circulated drafts of the cyber order, which was originally slated to come out in January, create a new sector of critical infrastructure encompassing “core communications infrastructure,” a vague and undefined term. The administration has of yet not filled key executive positions on cybersecurity, including Chief Information Officer, Chief Information Security Officer, and Chief Technology Officer.

CNN notes that FBI Director James Comey was “incredulous” after reading Trump’s tweets over the weekend that former President Barack Obama ordered a wiretap of his phones at Trump Tower during the campaign. The FBI Director was concerned that the allegation would make the FBI look bad, and was part of the reason why he requested the some FBI officials reach out to the Justice Department to knock down the allegation. White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said that Trump had not spoken with Comey since tweeting about the supposed wiretap.

The Hill writes that Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) has opened an investigation into allegations that the FBI worked with British spy Christopher Steele, who authored a controversial research dossier on Trump during the 2016 presidential election. Grassley sent a letter to Comey asking for records pertaining to to any agreements may have had with Steele.

Foreign Policy informs us that national security adviser H.R. McMaster is discovering the limits of an ambitious overall of the National Security Council structure, leaving him to rely on many people tapped by former national security adviser Michael Flynn. NSC staffers who will stay on will probably include K.T. McFarland, the deputy national security adviser; Michael Anton, the deputy assistant to the president for strategic communications; and Victoria Coates, the senior director for strategic assessments and a former Ted Cruz aide. While there is no indication that the Strategic Initiatives Group, a newly created shadow NSC that reports to Steve Bannon and Jared Kushner, is endangered, Sebastian Gorka, a self-described counterterrorism expert, has been under increased scrutiny due to numerous media accounts of his questionable security credentials. McMaster also faces a smaller budget that he may have to circumvent by receiving people on loan from other departments.

The Journal tells us that the heads of the Russian, Turkish, and U.S. armed forces met in the southern Turkish city of Antalya in a rare face-to-face summit to discuss the war against ISIL. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joseph Dunford met with Russian General Valery Gerasimov and Turkish General Hulusi Akar in the aftermath of numerous friendly fire incidents to attempt to improve communications as various forces backed by each side converge on the battlefield. The meeting follows a similar one between Dunford and Gerasimov in Azerbaijan last month.

The Journal also writes that the EU has approved a new military training command with an eye towards increased security cooperation, though it will have limited power to oversee missions. The EU agreed to curtail the command’s powers over British objections that it would duplicate the work of NATO. The impending exit of the UK from the EU softened its objections, as long as the new command was focused on training missions. Nevertheless, the long-discussed command marks a significant element of coordinated defense, potentially clearing the way for the bloc to take on more training missions in Africa.

Handmade war drones have taken off in support of the Ukrainian armed forces, according to Radio Free Europe. The drones have been built by a fast-learning group of enthusiasts for surveillance and to drop anti-tank bombs on Russian and Ukrainian separatist vehicles. The handmade drones are more difficult to jam or hack than the equipment provided by the United States.

Fox News reports that Iran tested two ballistic missiles over the weekend, one of which was successful in hitting its target, a floating barge approximately 155 miles away. The missiles, which are Fateh-110 short-range ballistic missiles, have not been test-fired in two years. Reuters adds that multiple fast-track vessels belonging to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps came so close to a Navy ship in the Strait of Hormuz that it was forced to change direction. The boats came within 600 yards of the USNS Invincible, a tracking ship, and then stopped. The Invincible and three British Navy ships accompanying the boat were forced to change course.

The Times tells us that the United States has deployed a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile system to Osan Air Base in South Korea after North Korea tested four ballistic missiles in the direction of Japan yesterday. The Times adds that China, in an angry response to the missile defense system being placed so close to Pyongyang and Beijing, warned of a new atomic arms race in the region.

Malaysia has accused North Korea of holding 11 of its citizens hostage after the North Korean regime announced that it would not allow the Malaysian nationals to leave until Kuala Lumpur guarantees the safety of North Korean diplomats and citizens in Malaysia, according to CNN. The 11 Malaysians are believed to be four embassy staff members, their family members, and two UN employees. Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak said that the act was “in total disregard of all international law and diplomatic norms.” The diplomatic row has escalated since Malaysian authorities have asked for three North Koreans holed up in the North Korean embassy who are wanted for questioning by Malaysian police for their alleged involvement in the murder of Kim Jong-nam, the half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.

The Journal writes that Malaysian police have foiled a plot by the Islamic State to attack members of the Saudi royal family as King Salman visited Kuala Lumpur. Two separate teams, one consisting of four Yemenis and another consisting of an Indonesian and a Malaysian, were ordered to attack the King’s entourage of some 1,500 people by ISIS. Malaysian Inspector General of Police Khalid Abu Bakar said “we got them in the nick of time.”

Meanwhile, the Post tells us that Iraqi forces recaptured the main government compound in western Mosul from ISIS as they advanced into the heart of the city in a pre-dawn surprise raid. After five months of bitter fighting, the capture of the government compound marks a significant step in the Iraqi military and police’s efforts to oust ISIS. Iraqi officials say that the plan to take the western half of the city is progressing much faster than expected, but narrow streets and alleyways that lie ahead will present a problem for armored convoys.

NBC News reports that ISIS allegedly used chemical weapons during one of the battles for the city of Mosul last week, according to an Iraqi official. The International Committee of the Red Cross issued a statement last week saying that their workers had treated 15 patients from Mosul who were suffering from symptoms consistent with exposure to a toxic chemical.

The Miami Herald informs us that a former Guantanamo detainee who was repatriated to Yemen in 2009 by the Obama administration was killed in recent airstrikes in Yemen. Navy spokesman Capt. Jeff Davis identified the dead detainee as Yasir Ali Abdallah al Silmi, whose brother was also detained at Guantanamo and was one of three detainees who simultaneously committed suicide at Camp Delta in 2006. Al Silmi was captured in Faisalabad, Pakistan in March 2002 in coordinated service security raids that scooped up suspected foreign fighters in three different al Qaeda safehouses. He was killed as part of a “precision strike” against al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, according to Davis.

NBC News takes an inside look at the Green Berets’ hunt for wanted warlord Joseph Kony, commander of the Lord’s Resistance Army in the Central African Republic.

VOA News notes that South Sudanese General Thomas Cirillo Swaka released a statement yesterday declaring the creation of a new rebel group called the National Salvation Front, with himself as chairman and commander-in-chief. It is not clear how strong the group is, or whether it will declare itself an ally of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army-in-Opposition (SPLA-IO), the rebel that has battled the administration of South Sudanese president Salva Kiir for more than three years. Swaka’s statement accuses the Kiir administration of seizing power and property for his own Dinka tribe at the expense of other ethnic groups that supported the country’s liberation war against Sudan.

ICYMI: Yesterday, on Lawfare

Quinta Jurecic posted the text of President Trump’s revised travel ban executive order.

Helen Murillo summarized the new order.

Benjamin Wittes provided a quick and dirty analysis of the new order.

Peter Margulies presented legal and empirical arguments for judicial deference to the new order.

Alex Simon examined how to keep the peace in Lebanon.

Paul Rosenzweig described why he would not include the Obama/wiretap allegation in an investigation of connections between Russia and Trump.

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