Today's Headlines and Commentary

Today's Headlines and Commentary

By Jordan Brunner
Friday, March 24, 2017, 2:25 PM

CNN informs us that House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence Chairman Devin Nunes (R-CA) has canceled the Committee’s scheduled open hearing next Tuesday with former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, former CIA Director John Brennan, and former Acting Attorney General Sally Yates. Instead, HPSCI will hold a closed hearing with FBI Director James Comey and NSA Director Mike Rogers to address Nunes’s worries over possible incidental collection of Trump team communications during the presidential transition, though the nature of Nunes’s concerns remains unclear. Ranking Member of HPSCI Representative Adam Schiff denounced the move, saying that Nunes had failed to inform the other members of the committee before going public and that the Chairman was attempting to “choke off information.” Nunes also announced that Paul Manafort, President Donald Trump’s former campaign manager, has agreed to be interviewed by the HPSCI as part of its inquiry into Russia’s meddling in the presidential election. Trump associates Roger Stone and Carter Page have volunteered to testify as well

ABC News tells us that Nunes now says that he does not know “for sure,” whether Trump or members of his transition team were even on the phone calls or other communications collected incidentally. Nunes now appears to be walking back a claim he made in a bizarre series of events on Wednesday in which he said that he had obtained “dozens of reports,” showing the U.S. intelligence community had incidentally collected information about U.S. citizens involved in the Trump transition. The limited and at times contradictory statements made by Nunes have only added to the lack of clarity on the issue. The Hill adds that members of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence have not seen the documents that Nunes is referring to, and have requested them from the relevant intelligence agencies. And in response to questions about why he felt the need to brief Trump on the matter, Nunes has responded that he had a “duty and obligation,” to brief Trump because he has been “taking a lot of heat in the news media.”

The Washington Post writes that Nunes’s actions have now prompted former Vice President Joe Biden to join with Senator John McCain (R-AZ) in calling for a select committee to investigate the Russia connection. Biden tweeted yesterday afternoon, saying that “McCain is right,” on the need for a select committee to investigate because of the bias of those in Congress. Biden, who has been largely focused on establishing a new foundation for cancer research, has said relatively little about the current situation with the Trump administration.

Meanwhile, the Guardian informs us that European security experts will meet in Brussels next week to assess restrictions levied by the U.S. and U.K. against travelers from selected airports in majority-Muslim countries bringing devices larger than a cellphone aboard flights into both countries. The British government did not consult the European Commission before announcing the decision on Tuesday following the U.S. ban earlier in the day, although national governments within the EU are not obligated to consult the Brussels before instituting counterterrorism measures. U.K. transportation secretary Chris Grayling said the UK ban was a result of close contact with the U.S. government and an understand of its ban was instituted. In the meeting of experts, the Commission has said it would like to hear more about the intelligence that informed the UK government’s ban, and is urging the UK to share the information. The Post adds that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has called on the U.S. and the U.K. to drop what the ban, which he called “exaggerated,” as Turkish officials has taken steps to keep Istanbul’s main airport outside the scope of the restrictions.

The Post reports that the Pentagon is considering potentially docking former national security adviser Michael Flynn’s retirement pay after learning that he did not seek permission from the U.S. government to work as a paid agent for Turkish interests. The issue, which arose when Flynn retroactively registered this month with the Justice Department as a foreign agent after his company concluded that the work they did in connection with the Turkish government “could be construed to have principally benefitted the Republic of Turkey”, is being reviewed by the Defense Department according to spokesman Navy Captain Jeff Davis.

The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled has set arguments on the validity of Trump’s travel ban executive order for May 8, according to Politico. However, the court signaled yesterday that it could rule even sooner than that on the government’s request for stay of the Maryland-based federal district court judge’s order halting implementation of the travel ban. The court is scheduled to complete filings on the request for a stay by April 5. Even so, a Hawaii-based judge blocked two full sections of the order, and the Justice Department has not yet appealed that ruling.

Foreign Policy writes that the Trump administration is seeking to cut $1 billion in funding for U.N. peacekeeping operations and alleviating poverty. The White House budget office informed State Department officials this week that the administration plans to eliminate all U.S. funding to the $326 million International Organizations and Programs account, which provides more than $130 million to UNICEF and around $70 million to the U.N. Development Program. The officials were also told to brace for a cut of 40 percent to State Department U.N. peacekeeping budget. U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley, who is set to chair the April 6 meeting of the U.N. Security Council, will make the point that some of the peacekeeping missions have outlived their usefulness and may need to be shuttered, according to a confidential U.S. concept paper.

One program that will see a “significant” increase in funding as a part of the proposed 2018 budget is efforts to develop and deploy “counterdrone” technology, according to National Defense. The boost in funding will go hand-in-hand with better coordination between agencies on developing relevant technologies needed to defeat robotic systems being used against U.S. forces.

The Post reports that the Pentagon is considering potentially docking former national security adviser Michael Flynn’s retirement pay after learning that he did not seek permission from the U.S. government to work as a paid agent for Turkish interests. The issue, which arose when Flynn retroactively registered this month with the Justice Department as a foreign agent after his company concluded that the work they did in connection with the Turkish government “could be construed to have principally benefitted the Republic of Turkey”, is being reviewed by the Defense Department according to spokesman Navy Captain Jeff Davis.

The Wall Street Journal tells us that Belgian police arrested a French man of North African descent yesterday after he attempted to drive through a crowd in Antwerp in a car containing weapons. The suspect was found to be under the influence of drugs, alcohol, or possibly both, to the point that the Belgian authorities would probably have to wait until later today to question him. Various weapons were discovered in the car after it was stopped, including knives, a riot gun, and a canister containing an unidentified substance, as well as two sets of fatigues, one of them military.

Reuters informs us that during his visit to Australia, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang insisted that China is not militarizing the South China Sea, saying that the defense equipment on the islands in the disputed waterway have been placed there to maintain “freedom of navigation.” The United States estimates that China has added more than 3,200 acres of land on seven features in the South China Sea over the past three years, building runways, ports, aircraft hangars and communications equipment.

Reuters writes that North Korea has maintained readiness conduct a new nuclear test at any time, with a possible test happening in a few days, according to a South Korean military official. North Korea has recently conducted five nuclear tests and a series of missile launches in defiance of U.N. sanctions, and is believed to be working on a warhead that could reach the United States.

The Hill notes that Trump has tapped Tennessee businessman Bill Hagerty as his nominee to become the next U.S. ambassador to Japan. Hagerty served for four years as the commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development, and while there Tennessee led the country in foreign direct investment with a large portion of it coming from Japan. Hagerty also served as a White House Fellow with a focus on international trade, commerce, treasury, defense, and telecom in the early 1990s. The news comes as the BBC adds that David Friedman, a pro-settlement hardliner who used to be Trump’s bankruptcy lawyer, was confirmed by the Senate yesterday to be Trump’s ambassador to Israel.

A bipartisan group of senators is moving to tighten sanctions on Iran, including Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn), ranking member Ben Cardin (D-Md.), Senator Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), Senator Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), and Senator Tom Cotton (R-AK), according to the Hill. The senators introduced legislation yesterday that would expand sanctions targeting Iran’s ballistic missile development, support for terrorism, transfers of weapons, or any human rights violations. The text of the legislation can be found here.

In the Post, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al Abadi pleads for more help from the United States for Iraq.

U.S. News & World Report tells us that Air Force Brigadier General Matthew Isler, deputy commander for the air campaign of the anti-ISIS coalition, pushed back yesterday against claims that warplanes under his command are being less discriminate in preventing civilian deaths following reports that airstrikes in Mosul have killed more than 200 civilians. Isler said that fighting has intensified in the dense city, and that the risk calculus about the number of civilian casualties acceptable to war planners has not changed. Public concerns have risen under the new administration of a potential increase in what the U.S. considers acceptable civilian casualties.

Reuters reports that NATO Supreme Allied Commander Europe U.S. Army General Curtis Scaparrotti said yesterday that he had seen Russian influence on Afghan insurgents growing and raised the possibility that Moscow was helping to supply the insurgents. He did not elaborate on what kinds of supply might be headed to the Taliban, or how direct Russia’s role might be, but went on to say that NATO and the United States “must win in Afghanistan.” Russian officials have denied the charge, calling the accusations “absolutely false,” and a “lie.”

The Hill informs us that yesterday, lawyers for Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl appealed an order from the U.S. Army Court of Criminal Appeals refusing to throw out Bergdahl’s case to U.S. Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces, arguing that Trump’s repeatedly statements calling Bergdahl a traitor constitute unlawful command influence (UCI). If the case is not dismissed, Bergdahl’s lawyers have requested that he face no punishment, or that the punishment not include confinement.

The Guardian notes that government evidence in a U.K. rendition case will be heard in secret for the first time following a ruling by the High Court of Justice in England and Wales under the Justice and Security Act of 2013. Lawyers for the Ministry of Defense and the Foreign Office will be allowed to present evidence behind closed doors in a case brought by Amanatullah Ali and Yunus Rahmatullah, two Pakistani men who claim that they were subjected to torture during a Blair-era rendition program. Justice Leggatt’s decision is believed to be the first time that the courts have agreed to sanction a “closed material procedure” in such a case in British courts.

The Miami Herald writes that the man serving life in a federal penitentiary as the “20th hijacker” in the September 11, 2001 attacks wants to testify at the 9/11 trials and has written the military judge offering his services. Zacarias Moussaoui, who is serving out his sentence at the SuperMax prison in Florence, Colorado, pled guilty to in 2005 in a federal court in Virginia to six conspiracy charges related to the 9/11 terror attacks. Moussaoui’s lawyer speculates that he is bored in solitary and “would like to be in the spotlight.” Moussaoui has written military judge Colonel James Pohl on at least three other occasions offering his help.

ICYMI: Yesterday, on Lawfare

Susan Hennessey and Benjamin Wittes reiterated that it’s time for a select committee to investigate the Russia connection.

Jane Chong took a closer look at House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence Chairman Devin Nunes’s behavior since the beginning of March.

Helen Klein Murillo chronicled medical records, high value detainee designations, and classification guidance at the 3/20 session of the week’s military commissions.

Pnina Sharvit Baruch provided a critical analysis of the report of the UN Human Rights Council Commission of Inquiry into the 2014 Gaza conflict.

J. Dana Stuster argued that the Trump administration’s new electronics ban is a case study in credibility.

Quinta Jurecic posted the livestream of the “Intelligence in Defense of the Homeland” symposium at UT Austin, featuring FBI Director James Comey and Homeland Security Adviser Tom Bossert.

Sarah Tate Chambers examined Supreme Court nominee Judge Neil Gorsuch’s positions on cyber-related issues in Part I of a three-part essay.

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