Today's Headlines and Commentary

Today's Headlines and Commentary

By Jordan Brunner
Thursday, March 23, 2017, 2:16 PM

The BBC reports that British police have identified Khalid Masood, a 52-year-old UK-born man, as the likely attacker behind the ramming and stabbing on Westminster Bridge yesterday. Masood was shot and killed by police following the attack, which killed three people and injured forty. The Washington Post informs us that U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May said the attacker Masood had been investigated by British authorities in the past for potential extremist links, but was a “peripheral figure” who was “not part of the current intelligence picture.” Police have held eight people after raids throughout London and Birmingham in connection with the attack but now believe that Masood acted alone. CNN adds that ISIS has claimed responsibility for the attack.

The FBI has information suggesting that associates of Trump may have communicated with Russian operatives during the presidential campaign to coordinate the release of damaging details about Hillary Clinton, according to CNN. One source indicated that FBI Director James Comey was referencing this information in his statements about an ongoing counterintelligence investigation into connections between the Trump team and Russia in his testimony before the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence on Monday. Though the Bureau has not yet found concrete evidence of collusion, the investigation may increasingly focus on this suggestive information, which includes human intelligence, travel, business, and phone records and accounts of in-person meetings.

In a bizarre sequence of events yesterday, House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence Chairman Devin Nunes (R-CA) publicly announced that communications of Trump’s transition team may have been subject to incidental collection by the intelligence community. Nunes held two press conferences and personally briefed the President on his findings before speaking with Ranking Member of HPSCI Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA), though the nature of his concerns remain unclear, as he clarified that the surveillance in question was conducted lawfully pursuant to FISA. Schiff warned that Nunes had cast a “profound cloud,” over the HPSCI’s effort to investigate Trump associates’s possible connections to Russia, calling Nunes’s actions a “profound irregularity,” and asking whether Nunes was acting as a “surrogate of the White House.” CNN reports that Nunes has acknowledged some regret to members of the Committee, saying that his actions were “a judgment call.” Nunes’s behavior has heightened calls for an independent investigation of Russian election interference, with Senator John McCain calling for the formation of a select committee.

Meanwhile, Foreign Policy tells us that in a meeting with representatives of the 68-member coalition fighting ISIS, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson announced a plan to establish “interim zones of stability, also popularly known as “safe zones,” in Syria to allow war-torn refugees to return home, a plan advocated by Trump during the campaign. But the plan has faced criticism from U.S. allies, like Portugal and Turkey, and by humanitarian organizations, due to concerns over whether the safe zones can actually guarantee safety and whether all the factions involved in the conflict can cooperate.

The AP notes that NATO will attempt to reschedule its meeting of foreign ministers and secretaries so that Tillerson can attend. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said that he met with Tillerson yesterday and they agreed to have their staffs work out an alternative schedule that accommodates Tillerson, who had previously announced that he was planning to skip the meeting because it interfered with a visit by Chinese President Xi Jinping and another engagement he had with Russia later next month.

Reuters reports that Tillerson has ordered U.S. diplomatic missions to identify “populations warranting increased scrutiny” and toughen screening for visa applicants in these groups, according to diplomatic cables. Tillerson has also ordered a “mandatory social media check,” for all applicants who have ever been present in territory controlled by ISIS. The four cables provide insight into how the Trump administration plans to implement its “extreme vetting” plan. The cables provided instructions on how to implement Trump’s travel ban executive order, although some instructions were rescinded after U.S. federal judges ruled against certain portions of the order. The cables also called for working groups of law enforcement and intelligence officials to “develop a list of criteria identifying sets of post applicant populations warranting increased security.”

The New York Times tells us that hundreds of fighters belonging to the Syrian Democratic Forces, along with their U.S. military advisors, have begun a major operation to cut off western approaches to Raqqa, backed by American artillery and attack helicopters. The operation aims to take control of the Tabqa Dam on the Euphrates River, the local town of Tabqa, and a local airfield. It is the first time that the United States has carried out an air assault in conjunction with Syrian fighters in its campaign against ISIS, with the mission reflecting the leeway that the Trump administration has given commanders to carry out operations without a prolonged review in Washington.

The Wall Street Journal adds that the effort, which puts the Kurdish-dominated SDF at the lead of the assault, has met with a vociferous condemnation by the Turkish government. Senator John McCain (R-AZ), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said yesterday that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is “adamantly opposed to the [Kurds] being a part of retaking Raqqa.” The costs of support to the Kurds may include access to Incirlik Air Base in Turkey, which the U.S. uses to launch operations in both Syria and Iraq.

The Times also tells us that the Taliban has captured the strategically important district of Sangin in the southern province of Helmand this morning, the culmination of a years-long offensive that took the lives of more combatants than any other fight for territory in Afghanistan. A spokesman for the U.S. military downplayed the development, saying that Afghan security forces were still in the district and had merely moved its seat of government, but local Afghans confirmed that there was no doubt that the district had fallen to the enemy. More British and later American Marines died in Sangin than in any other of Afghanistan’s 400 other districts, until the international military coalition began transferring authority to the Afghan military in 2013. Since then, hundreds of Afghan military and police have lost their lives defending the district.

The Journal writes that Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al Sisi will visit the White House on April 3rd for a meeting with Trump. Sisi has been intent on closer ties with the United States under the Trump administration, particularly in committing his help to countering terrorism. Egypt is one of the largest recipients of U.S. military and foreign aid, which may be affected if Trump’s proposed 31 percent cut to the State Department passes Congress.

CNN notes that Chinese officials ordered a U.S. military aircraft flying near South Korea to leave the airspace on Sunday as the plane traveled above disputed waters in the East China Sea. The pilots responded that they were conducting routine operation in international airspace and continued in their flight path through China’s controversial Air Defense Identification Zone, which Beijing requires all aircraft to notify the government before transiting. The U.S. and Japan to not recognize China’s claim on the area.

The Times informs us that Chinese firms have increasingly become significant investors in American start-ups working on cutting-edge technologies with potential military applications, which has started to ring alarm bells in Washington. The start-ups include companies that make rocket engines for spacecraft, sensors for autonomous navy ships, and printers that make flexible screens that could be used in fighter-plane cockpits. According to a new white paper commissioned by the Defense Department, many of the firms have close ties to the Chinese government, which is encouraging them to make such investments. The white paper concludes that government controls that are supposed to protect potentially critical technologies are falling short.

Supreme Court nominee Judge Neil Gorsuch said during his confirmation hearing yesterday that his criticism of lawyers at large law firms representing Guantanamo detainees was “not his finest hour,” according to the Miami Herald. Gorsuch’s comments were brought up by Senator Richard Durbin (D-IL), who pointed to emails Gorsuch had sent while serving as a senior-official at the Justice Department.

ICYMI: Yesterday, on Lawfare

Representative Adam Schiff, Ranking Member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, posted an adaptation of his remarks at the Brookings Institution this past Tuesday.

Benjamin Wittes, Susan Hennessey, and Quinta Jurecic offered a guide for those perplexed about HPSCI Chairman Devin Nunes’s statements yesterday.

Jack Goldsmith presented some of the many challenges of working for Donald Trump.

Paul Rosenzweig explained how the reaction to the ban on certain electronics on flights entering the United States points to how Trump is destroying the presumption of regularity.

Helen Klein Murillo provided a primer examining the three major criminal laws of lying that have pervaded public discourse on the Russia connection.

Ben posted Rational Security the “What’s the Russian Word for ‘Edition’?” Edition.

Ben and Jack posted a reminder about the upcoming Hoover Book Soiree on Graeme Wood’s The Way of the Strangers: Encounters with the Islamic State.

Nora Ellingsen chronicled the ISIS-free week we had when it came to international terrorism prosecutions.

Matthew Waxman examined international law and deterring cyberattacks.

Stewart Baker posted the Steptoe Cyberlaw Podcast: Debating Hackback.

Email the Roundup Team noteworthy law and security-related articles to include, and follow us on Twitter and Facebook for additional commentary on these issues. Sign up to receive Lawfare in your inbox. Visit our Events Calendar to learn about upcoming national security events, and check out relevant job openings on our Job Board.