Today's Headlines and Commentary

Today's Headlines and Commentary

By Jordan Brunner
Tuesday, March 14, 2017, 1:16 PM

The Wall Street Journal tells us that President Donald Trump has rolled back another Obama-era national security policy by granting the CIA increased authority to conduct drone strikes against suspected terrorists. The new authority, which was given to the CIA last month and used against senior al Qaeda leader Abu al-Khayr al-Masri in northern Syria, is a departure from the Obama administration’s development of a policy under which the CIA largely cooperated with the Pentagon by providing intelligence used for military airstrikes. Trump’s action appears to only apply to CIA operations in Syria at the moment, but could be expanded to include other countries such as Yemen, Libya, or Somalia.

On a similar note, the Washington Post informs us that the Trump administration is close to finishing a review that would roll back restraints on counterterrorism strikes implemented under the Obama administration. The review, which is being considered at senior levels of the National Security Council, would undo a series of rules known as the “Presidential Policy Guidance” imposed to rein in drone operations outside active war zones. Among the changes, the Trump administration plan would likely relax requirements that the military be “near certain” that no civilian casualties would result from a strike and that potential terrorist targets pose a “continuing and imminent threat” to U.S. personnel. However, according to one official, the administration plans to maintain standards above those required by the international law of armed conflict for strikes conducted outside areas of active hostilities.

Politico reports that seven statesWashington, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Oregon, New York, and Californiahave asked Seattle-based federal district Judge James Robart, who imposed the widest injunction on Trump’s old travel ban, to extend his ruling to cover parts of the president’s revised directive. The states have asked Robart to schedule a hearing for today on their emergency motion, but Robart gave the Justice Department until this evening to respond. Other federal judges in Hawaii and Maryland have set hearings for tomorrow in separate suits.

The Daily Beast writes that the Department of Justice has asked the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence for an extension of the deadline set by the Committee to explain Trump’s claims that former President Obama wiretapped his phones at Trump Tower during the 2016 presidential election. HPSCI Chairman Devin Nunes (R-CA) has granted the Justice Department one more week to comply with the request for information, meaning the information will be available before the HPSCI’s first public hearing on Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election on March 20th.

Politico informs us that White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said yesterday that Trump “doesn’t really think,” that Obama “tapped his phone personally,” seeming to walk back Trump’s explosive and unsubstantiated claim. Spicer tried to claim that Trump was referring to general “surveillance activities rather than a specific wiretap and that he was referring to the Obama administration, rather than Obama personally.

The Post notes that the Justice Department has stepped in to try to shut down litigation by two conservative legal groups to compel the release of more Clinton emails. Justice Department lawyer Carol Federighi, who argued the case under the Obama administration, argued that the case brought by Judicial Watch and Cause of Action is moot because the FBI has already completed an exhaustive investigation and 55,000 Clinton emails have already been released. During the campaign, Trump repeatedly promised to investigate and even jail Clinton over the ongoing controversy surrounding her use of a private email server.

ZDNet reports that an unsecured U.S. Air Force backup drive connected to the Internet that was not password protected has exposed thousands of U.S. Air Force documents, including highly sensitive personnel files on senior and high-ranking officials. The files included names, addresses, ranks, and Social Security numbers of more than 4,000 officers, and also listed the security clearance levels of other officers. Phone numbers and contact information of staff and their spouses were found on several spreadsheets. Several national security experts have described this information as the “holy grail” for foreign adversaries and spies.

Politico tells us that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson successful pushed back on massive cuts to the State Department in the Trump administration’s proposed budget. While the budget is still expected to trim funding for both the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development, it will not cut 37 percent as initially proposed. Even so, the budget is expected to include “staged cuts,” spread out over several years, instead of an immediate hit.

Cuts in the billions of dollars have also been proposed for U.S. funding to U.N. programs, according to Foreign Policy. State Department staffers have been instructed by the Trump administration to seek cuts in excess of 50 percent, signaling an unprecedented retreat by the administration from international operations. It remains unclear whether the full extent of the steep U.N. cuts will be reflected in the 2018 budget. The heaviest cuts will target the State Department’s Bureau of International Organization Affairs, which funds UN programs including peacekeeping, UNICEF, and the U.N. Development Programme.

The Journal writes that according to a report by the alliance, NATO members have increased military spending and and will focus more on fighting terrorism, two key demands of the Trump administration. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, who was critical of Trump’s calls for NATO allies to spend more on defense, has now embraced the calls and has been working behind the scenes to encourage European countries to take a hard look at their budgets. While decrying the lack of “fair burden-sharing” in the alliance, Stoltenberg has said that reaching the 2 percent of GDP spending guideline by 2024 was a realistic goal.

The BBC reports that the U.K. Parliament has passed the “Brexit” bill, paving the way for Prime Minister Theresa May to trigger Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty to exit the European Union. The bill is expected to receive Royal Assent and become law today. Meanwhile, Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon announced that she intends to hold a second referendum on Scottish independence between fall of 2018 and spring of 2019, when Brexit negotiations with the EU are expected to be reaching a conclusion. The Brexit process is set to take place two years after May invokes Article 50 to signal to the EU that the U.K. intends to leave.

The Journal notes that German Chancellor Angela Merkel is scheduled to meet with Trump on Friday in the first face-to-face conversation between two leaders with a raft of major policy differences Trump has often slammed Merkel, once calling her refugee policy “insane,” while Germany has been unsettled by Trump’s “America first” approach due to its export-oriented economy and its reliance on multilateral diplomacy. Merkel is expected to highlight German firms’ multibillion dollar investments in the U.S. and bring several German CEOs to the White House to talk about expanding Germany’s vocational training system to the United States. The meeting, which was originally scheduled for today, was postponed due to the snowstorm that has struck much of the eastern seaboard of the United States.

CNN informs us tells us that Trump will host Chinese President Xi Jinping for a summit at his Florida estate Mar-a-Lago next month. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is expected to finalize plans during his visit to China this week. Plans for the summit come amid heightened tensions in the region over the South China Sea and in particular North Korea.

According to the BBC, Malaysia will deport 50 North Koreans in response to Kim Jong-nam’s alleged assassination by North Koreans, three of whom are thought to be hiding in North Korea’s embassy in Malaysia. Malaysia recently implemented a ban on North Koreans leaving the country in response to a similar move by North Korea against Malaysian nationals.

The Financial Times tells us that in the Trump administration’s first foray into Middle East peacemaking, Trump’s special representative for international negotiations Jason Greenblatt met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu yesterday and is slated to hold talks with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas today. Greenblatt formerly worked as the Trump Organization’s chief legal advisor.

Haaretz reports that according to an anonymous source quoted in a Kuwaiti paper, Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps may have built a number of weapons production factories in Lebanon, which Hezbollah has been running for the last three months. The plants can reportedly produce different types of rockets and missiles, including those with a range of more than 500 kilometers; land-based anti- ship missiles; antitank missiles; armored vehicles; and drones.

The Post writes that Turkey announced a series of political sanctions against the Netherlands yesterday over its refusal to allow two Turkish ministers to campaign to Turkish expatriates there, including halting high-level political discussions between the two countries and closing Turkish air space to Dutch diplomats. Al Jazeera adds that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in response to a call by the EU to stop his inflammatory rhetoric, accused German Chancellor Angela Merkel of “supporting terrorists,” an accusation Merkel called “clearly absurd.”

The Post informs us that ISIS militants in Mosul are carrying out what looks like an organized, fighting withdrawal from the Iraqi city, with a core of fighters holding out in the city as senior leadership escapes to regroup in Syria to prepare for the future. The civilian population is most likely the reason why ISIS fighters have been able to hold out so long and turn Mosul into a grueling battle, as the militants are using the nearly 700,000 civilians as human shields, while forcing some to flee as cover for their fighters. Also escaping are many middle-rank militants, who are crucial to keeping the Islamic State’s structure together.

The Guardian notes that Russian special forces have been sent to an airbase in Egypt near the border with Libya in what may be a Russian attempt to support the Libyan military commander Khalifa Haftar, who suffered a setback when a rival group attached oil ports controlled by his forces. Egyptian forces have described a 22-member Russian special forces unit, which is equipped with drones. Russia has denied the deployment.

In the Post, Senators John McCain (R-AZ) and Lindsey Graham (R-N.C.) argue that the United States must deploy more troops to Afghanistan if it wants to end the stalemate there.

Reporting from Guantanamo on ongoing military commissions hearings in the USS Cole case, Carol Rosenberg the Miami Herald chronicles testimony by two FBI agents about their investigation into the attack on the Cole.

ICYMI: Yesterday, on Lawfare

Nicholas Weaver described how Wikileaks was once again able to shape the media’s discussion of its leaks.

Steve Vladeck expressed disagreement with John Bellinger on two issues in a discussion of Guantanamo.

Quinta Jurecic flagged a letter by Senate Democrats asking Attorney General Jeff Sessions to confirm whether the Justice Department gave up its only copy of the SSCI Torture Report to Judge Lamberth.

Chris Mirasola recounted the debate over the timeline for discovery in the 3/9 session of the military commissions, and Alex Loomis discussed motion sickness and medical side effects in the 3/10 session of the military commissions.

Jane Chong examined sanctuary cities and Trump’s executive order on them in Part I of a four-part essay.

Paul Rosenzweig reflected on Preet Bharara’s decision to force the Justice Department to fire him rather than resign.

Bob Bauer flagged a paper he recently wrote entitled The National Security Lawyer, In Crisis: When the Best View of the Law May Not Be the Best View.

Isabella Uria and Tianyi Xin described what China’s coal ban is, and what it isn’t.

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