Today's Headlines and Commentary

Today's Headlines and Commentary

By Jordan Brunner
Monday, March 13, 2017, 1:45 PM

The New York Times reports that the Trump administration is looking into loosening Obama-era constraints intended to prevent civilian deaths from counterterrorism missions outside conventional war zones. President Donald Trump has granted a Pentagon request to designate three provinces of Yemen to be an “area of active hostilities” where looser battlefield rules apply and is expected to do the same for Somalia. Though these initial efforts are temporary, they may serve as a test run for a permanent loosening or rescinding of the guidelines. The move has caused some concern among national security experts, 37 of whom sent a letter to Defense Secretary James Mattis on Sunday warning that unintentional civilian deaths as a result of the new policy could “cause significant strategic setbacks.” A copy of the letter can be found here.

The Hill writes that HPSCI Chairman Devin Nunes and ranking member Adam Schiff asked the White House on Saturday to offer evidence showing Trump Tower was tapped by today. The claim has been condemned by Democrats as “outlandish” and “destructive.” The Washington Post adds that on Sunday Senator John McCain (R-AZ) also called on Trump to provide evidence of the wiretap, and that if he could not that he should drop the accusation. These calls follow on a letter by Senators Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) to FBI Director James Comey asking for proof of the accusation.

Politico informs us that investigations into Trump associates’ connections to Russia may place Nunes and Schiff on a collision course. Nunes, the chairman of the HPSCI and a close Trump ally who served as a member of Trump’s transition team, isn’t convinced Russia tried to help Trump, while Schiff has argued that Russia’s effort to sway the election to Trump it is one of the most serious issues of our time. Their clashing perspectives could have severe consequences if they are unable to come together, potentially undermining public confidence that Russia’s interference can be fully explained.

The Times profiles Russian hacker Evgeniy Bogachev, who has a $3 million FBI bounty on his head and who had a large part to play in the Russian cyber interference in the 2016 presidential election.

The Telegraph notes that GCHQ, the UK’s signals intelligence agency, has warned British political parties of the threat that hackers pose to democracy, and will hold seminars to educate politicians on the threat. Ciaran Martin, chief executive of GCHQ’s National Cyber Security Center (NCSC) has written a letter to the leaders of all the main political parties to offer advice. Martin warned last month that there has been 188 high-level cyber-attacks against the UK.

The Military Times tells us that nearly two months into the new administration, Mattis remains the only Trump political appointee at the Defense Department. Mattis has continued to spar with the White House over choices for high-priority positions that are key to developing policy, with only Deputy Defense Secretary Bob Work, an Obama holdover, present to help the new Defense Secretary. The sluggish process has caused some consternation among current and former officials, in visible contrast to the Obama and George W. Bush administrations, which kept key positions filled with holdovers and nominated candidates for confirmation quickly.

The Trump administration asked 46 U.S. attorneys appointed by President Obama to resign on Friday. The order ran into difficulty when Preet Bharara, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, refused to resign and was fired by the administration. Reuters reports that prior to his dismissal, Bharara refused a call from Trump due to protocol and reported the communication to Attorney General Jeff Sessions. A White House official said that Trump’s call was meant to “thank [Bharara] for his service and wish him good luck.”

In Syria, Al-Monitor informs us that the Trump administration has decided to wait until after the presidential referendum in Turkey to decide whether to arm the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces, which Turkey sees as a terrorist group, to defeat ISIS in Raqqa. U.S. Central Command remains strongly in favor of using the SDF to take back Raqqa, but such a move would anger Turkish officials in Ankara. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis is among those who has raised concerns over working with the SDF. The situation has becomes increasingly more complicated in Syria, most recently with the border city of Manbij, which had been the next target of the Turkish troops in Syria, being handed to the Syrian government in a deal between Russia and the SDF.

The AP writes that a spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin is expressing frustration at the inconclusive first two months of the Trump administration in terms of improving relations between Moscow and Washington. Spokesman Dmitry Peskov has expressed disappointment, saying that Moscow doesn’t have a better understanding of when dialogue will begin and if sanctions will be lifted soon.

The Trump national security team has backed away from earlier calls by Trump to cooperate with Russia in Syria, making clear that there will be no increase in cooperation with Moscow in fighting ISIS, according to the U.S. News & World Report. While Trump has continually highlighted his desire to work with Russia, even suggesting that the war in Syria should be left to the Russians, national security officials such as Mattis have expressed deep skepticism about Russia standing behind previous commitments it has made or revealing its true intentions in Syria. Backing Russia would also require permission from Trump from Congress under a provision in the National Defense Authorization Act mandating congressional approval before entering into military cooperation with Russia pending the Kremlin’s withdrawal from Crimea.

Reuters writes that Iraqi forces have faced fierce resistance in their advance into Mosul’s Old City, battling snipers and mortar rounds. Progress by Rapid Response units has also been slowed by heavy rains, but the troops are only 100 meters from the Iron Bridge that connects the Old City with the eastern side of Mosul. Iraqi forces have taken to dragging blinds of blankets and curtains across streets to obscure their movements from snipers. A third of west Mosul is now under coalition control, as 600,000 civilians remain trapped in the city with the militants.

The AP tells us that hundreds of armed men converged yesterday on Libya’s main oil shipping terminals, with rival powers from east and west vying for control in a battle being watched closely by global oil markets. The struggle could turn into an all-out conflict, and has already seen some of the bloodiest fighting between factions. Compounding the situation is a recent vote by the eastern parliament withdrawing support from the U.N. peace deal that created the the Tripoli government in January of last year.

CNN informs us that tensions have continued to rise between Turkey and the Netherlands as national elections approach in both countries. The tensions began after the Netherlands barred a plane carrying Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, who was seeking to address expatriates in support of the Turkish referendum, from entering the country, citing security concerns. The Dutch also barred Turkey’s family affairs minister from entering the Turkish consulate in Rotterdam. In response, protests broke out in both countries, and Erdogan responded by accusing the Dutch of Nazism. The Turkish government has also refused to allow the Dutch ambassador, who is on leave out of the country, to return to Turkey. The tensions have come as the incumbent Dutch Prime Minister is facing a tight race against far-right and anti-Islam candidate Geert Wilders, and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is seeking to expand his powers with a national referendum on the presidency.

Al Jazeera notes that Trump invited Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to the White House during a phone call. The White House said that Trump told Abbas that he believes a peace deal between Israelis and Palestinians must be negotiated directly by both sides. It seems that Trump will let Jared Kushner, his son-in-law and a senior White House adviser, take the lead in the negotiations.

An Egyptian prosecutor has ordered the release of former president Hosni Mubarak, the Times writes. Mubarak will likely be released on Tuesday or Wednesday from the military hospital in Cairo in which he has been imprisoned for the past six years.

The Japan Times informs us that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who has kept a relatively low profile since assuming leadership of the State Department, plans to visit Japan, South Korea, and China to discuss North Korea in his first official trip to the region. During his visit to Beijing, Tillerson plans to meet with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and possibly Chinese President Xi Jinping, and is expected to urge China to put more pressure on North Korea over its missile program. The AP adds that the South China Sea will also feature largely in Tillerson’s discussions. In Tokyo Tillerson is expected to prepare for a visit by Trump to Japan, while in Seoul he plans to discuss North Korean weapons development and the recent assassination of Kim Jong-nam, the half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong-kim.

Japan will position its largest warship to the South China Sea in response to China’s continued assertion of territorial claims in the region, Reuters writes. The ship will travel through the sea for three months and will return to Japan after participating in a joint naval exercise with the India and the United States. The plan would represent the most significant naval exercise conducted in the region by Japan since World War II.

The U.S. has dispatched attack drones to South Korea following the deployment of the THAAD defense missile system to the country, according to Reuters. The drones, called Gray Eagle Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) are part of a broader plan to deploy company of the drones with every division of the U.S. Army, adding significant intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities to both the South Korean and U.S. forces according to United States Forces Korea spokesman Christopher Bush. The drones have been deployed to South Korea in response to continued North Korean missile tests. On that note, Foreign Policy provides us with an infographic demonstrating how far North Korean missiles can hit.

ICYMI: This Weekend, on Lawfare

John Bellinger provided some observations from his time in the Bush administration during the creation of prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba to argue that Guantanamo should be closed.

Quinta Jurecic posted the Lawfare Podcast, featuring a conversation between Jack Goldsmith and former Director of the National Counterterrorism Center Matt Olsen on the current state of national security.

Paul Rosenzweig asserted that Trump’s border wall will lead to reduced security.

Josh Blackman analyzed the new travel ban executive order in Parts I and II of a three-part essay.

Jack Goldsmith argued that White House counsel Donald McGahn should have pre-empted the issue of Flynn’s foreign agent status during the transition.

Darya Dolzikova examined the Iran factor in the changing U.S.-Russian relationship.

Grayson Clary discussed how a new study by the RAND Corporation adds data to the Vulnerability Equities Process debate.

Emma Kohse chronicled delays in discussing the USS Cole and arguments over evidence exhibits in the 3/8 session of the week’s military commissions coverage.

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