Today's Headlines and Commentary

Today's Headlines and Commentary

By Jordan Brunner
Tuesday, March 21, 2017, 4:30 PM

The New York Times reports that passengers on foreign airlines to the United States from ten airports in eight Muslim-majority countries have been barred from carrying electronic devices larger than a cell phone under new flight restrictions. Officials have called the directive an attempt to address gaps in foreign airport security. The list includes airports in Jordan, Egypt, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Morocco, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates. The plan would not include American-operated airplanes. The BBC adds that a UK ban would similarly ban laptops, tablets, DVD players, and phones over a certain size, in a move that was “obviously part of a coordinated action with the US,” according to Daniel Sandford of the BBC. There is speculation that an attempted downing of an airliner in Somalia that was linked to a laptop is the cause of the ban.

McClatchy writes that federal investigators are examining whether far-right news sites, such as Breitbart and InfoWars, played any role in the Russian interference by dramatically widening the reach of news stories that favored Trump’s presidential bid. Russian operatives may have strategically timed bots to blitz social media when Trump was on the defensive during the campaign, with their end products largely comprising millions of Twitter and Facebook posts carrying links to false or misleading stories on conservative sources such as Breitbart and InfoWars, as well as RT and Sputnik News.

The Times writes that Iraqi President Haider al-Abadi met with Trump yesterday, where the two heads of state discussed the war against ISIS in Iraq and security cooperation. At a later appearance at the United States Institute of Peace, Abadi said that the Trump administration plans to be more engaged in fighting terrorism, citing “assurances that the [U.S.] support will not only continue but will accelerate.” Neither side publicly commented on potential plans for the reconstruction of Iraq or the future presence of American troops.

Meanwhile, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson plans to skip a meeting of foreign ministers of the 28 NATO allies next month in favor of staying in the United States to facilitate a visit by Chinese President Xi Jinping later this month and a meeting in Russia later in April, according to Reuters. The NATO meeting would have been the first of his tenure as Secretary of State. A State Department spokeswoman said that Tillerson would meet with the foreign ministers from the majority of the 26 other countries at a later gathering of anti-ISIS coalition members. Two officials said that NATO offered to change the meeting dates so Tillerson could attend and still meet with President Xi, but was rebuffed by the State Department. The move, which has been revealed as NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg meets with the Defense Secretary James Mattis, only adds to Tillerson’s already existing public relations headache over his aversion to the press, which the Times chronicles here.  

Politico tells us that Ivanka Trump, who had promised that she would play no formal role in her father’s administration, has secured her own office in the West Wing, raising ethical concerns. Trump will hold no official title, will not pull a salary, and will not be sworn in, even as she looks to be filling the role of a full-time staffer in the Trump administration. In other appointments news, Trump plans to nominate Ryan Dean Newman, the acting assistant attorney general for the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Policy and former chief counsel to Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX), as his general counsel of the Army; and David Glawe as his chief of intelligence for the Department of Homeland Security.

The BBC informs us that UK Foreign Minister Boris Johnson will visit Washington this week and will avoid bringing up claims by Trump’s press secretary Sean Spicer that the British intelligence agency GCHQ helped Obama tap his phones. The UK is said to be ready to forget the spat after the administration agreed not to repeat it. The statements by Spicer caused a diplomatic incident, and elicited an exceedingly rare response from GCHQ, which called the comments “utterly ridiculous.” The Guardian adds that Johnson will also meet with senior White House adviser Steve Bannon, in recognition of Bannon’s key role within the administration, and is also set to meet with Stephen Miller, Kellyanne Conway, and Republican congressional leaders.  

NextGov informs us that the Department of Homeland Security is developing a new strategy to protect and defend federal networks, which it hopes to roll out within the next couple of months and to implement within two years.

The Syrian Kurdish YPG militia said it is receiving training from the Russian military, according to the AP. Russia’s Defense Ministry has confirmed that it has embedded servicemen with units of the YPG in northern Syria, but said they were there to monitor a ceasefire between Kurdish forces and rival Turkish-backed Syrian opposition forces. YPG spokesman Redur Khalil said that the Russian forces were there “by agreement” and called the training a step toward “direct contacts,” with Russia.

The Times of Israel tells us that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said yesterday that Russia could “play an important role,” in preventing a clash between Syria and Israel. The comments come in the wake of a recent row between Syria and Israel that began when Israel launched strikes in southern Syria to target the terrorist group Hezbollah, with the Syrian government responding with surface-to-air missiles. Israel has expressed rare agreement with Assad on this issue, as Israeli ambassador to Russia Gary Koren agreeing that Russia could help prevent escalation between the sides.

The Post informs us that a car bomb suicide attack on an Afghan checkpoint killed six members of an intelligence unit late yesterday. Seven other members of the unit were wounded in the attack, for which the Taliban claimed responsibility. The organization has stepped up attacks across Afghanistan since the U.S. and NATO formally concluded their combat mission in 2014.

Reuters writes that the Trump administration is considering sweeping sanctions aimed at cutting off North Korea from the global financial system as part of a broad review of measures to counter Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile threat. The sanctions would be part of a multi-pronged approach of increased economic and diplomatic pressure, especially on Chinese banks and firms that do business with North Korea, along with beefed up defense measures by the U.S., South Korea, and Japan.

The news comes as the Wall Street Journal reports that according to the director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, North Korea has doubled the size of its facility for enriching uranium in recent years. Yukiya Amano expressed doubt that a diplomatic agreement would solve the problem of North Korea’s nuclear program, and described the rogue state as rapidly advancing its capacity to produce nuclear weapons.

The Miami Herald writes that the judge in the 9/11 war crimes case has agreed to hear testimony next week from detainee Abu Zubaydah, who has never been allowed to speak in public. At issue is a claim by the accused 9/11 plotter Ramzi bin al Shibh that the CIA or troops doing their bidding are intentionally disrupting his sleep and are responsible for noises and vibrations that interfere with his ability to prepare for his death-penalty trial. Zubaydah is being called to testify about his interactions with and on behalf of bin al Shibh.

 

ICYMI: Yesterday, on Lawfare

Quinta Jurecic, Benjamin Wittes, and Susan Hennessey posted video and a live-blog of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence’s open hearing on Russian active measures during the 2016 campaign.

Ben explained how we should read Comey’s testimony at the hearing.

Adam Klein also provided takeaways from the hearing.

April Doss examined the Trump administration’s proposals to examine the social media accounts of visitors to the United States.

Bobby Chesney flagged the Justice Department’s suit to revoke the citizenship of convicted al Qaeda operative Iyman Faris, a naturalized U.S. citizen.

Quinta flagged military commissions chief prosecutor Mark Martins’ statement on pretrial hearings conducted in the USS Cole case, and flagged the filing of a petition for certiorari in the Nashiri habeas case.  

Cody Poplin chronicled the pre-trial questioning of FBI agents about identification of evidence in the 3/15 session of the military commissions.

Luca Marzorati discussed the ruling by the D.C. Circuit’s ruling in Doe v. Ethiopia.

Taisu Zhang explained what the Trump presidency means for China.

Timothy R. Heath argued that China will not unify with Taiwan by 2020 because Beijing lacks compelling military options.

Ben invited us to the Third Annual Triple Entente Beer Summit.

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