Today's Headlines and Commentary

Today's Headlines and Commentary

By Rishabh Bhandari, Jordan Brunner
Monday, March 27, 2017, 12:24 PM

CNN reports that House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence Chairman Devin Nunes (R-CA) confirmed this morning that he was on the White House grounds the day before his announcement that he saw information suggesting that the communications of then-President-elect Donald Trump and his advisers may have been swept up incidentally as part of surveillance of foreign nationals. Nunes said that he was not at the White House itself, only on the White House grounds. A government official clarified that Nunes was seen at the National Security Council offices in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building nearby the White House, which houses a facility to view secure information.

The New York Times tells us that the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence intends to question Jared Kushner, President Trump’s son-in-law and a close adviser, as part of the committee’s broad inquiry into ties between the president’s associates and the Kremlin. The questioning will focus on reports that Kushner held undisclosed meetings with top Russian officials, including Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, whose communications with former National Security Advisor Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn led to Flynn’s dismissal..

The Washington Post relays the concerns of the NSA’s top civilian leader, Richard Ledgett, that Washington has not been effective in thwarting Moscow’s efforts at meddling in America’s or Europe’s elections. Ledgett also reiterated in the same interview that the U.S. government should prosecute Edward Snowden for leaking NSA secrets.

The Hill reveals that Democratic politicians are calling out Russia for engaging in war by meddling in the U.S. presidential elections. Opposition lawmakers are capitalizing on both FBI Director James Comey’s testimony that the bureau is investigating any links between Russia and the Trump presidential campaign and allegations that the White House is soft on Moscow.

CBS News tells us that former Secretary of State George Shultz weighed in on Face the Nation this weekend about current Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s aversion towards the media, as he barred all but one news outlet from covering his trip to Asia. “I don’t understand, exactly. He must have had some good reason for that,” Schultz said. Some have speculated that Tillerson’s reticence allowed foreign press outlets an uncontested opportunity to shape coverage of Tillerson’s trip. Schultz made a similar point: “The [American] press . . . they have their opinions, but basically they are the way you get your point across to the American people.”

The Washington Post discloses that NATO has rescheduled its upcoming foreign-ministers meeting to accommodate Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s schedule. Tillerson had been initially criticized by the press and U.S. lawmakers for not planning to attend the meeting with his NATO counterparts despite scheduling trips to other countries around the same time.

Defense News notes that the Senate will vote this week on the ratification of Montenegro as the newest member of the NATO alliance. The Trump administration has thrown its weight behind Montenegro’s accession into the mutual defense pact, a move that has been met with sharp criticism from Moscow.

NBC reports that Russian president Vladimir Putin weighed in on the upcoming French elections by hosting the populist candidate Marine Le Pen at the Kremlin on Friday. Despite the meeting, analysts are skeptical that Russia can secure Le Pen a victory in the polls after she has fallen behind Emmanuel Macron, the leading candidate.

The Wall Street Journal writes that NATO deputy secretary-general Rose Gottemoeller raised concerns in a speech over the weekend about Russia’s role in Libya, where it appears to be backing a rival of the U.N.-supported coalition government in Tripoli, General Khalifa Haftar. Gottemoeller also noted that, while initially supporting the U.N. Security Council resolution that established the coalition government, Russia seems to have simply tossed the resolution aside. Haftar, seen by critics as an autocrat in the mold of former Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi, has traveled to Moscow twice and requested weaponry, despite a U.N. arms embargo. Numerous European countries have lobbied Russia to get Haftar to support the unity government in Tripoli. The U.S. military wants to keep boots on the ground in Libya to help with counterterrorism operations, according to Marine Corps General Thomas Waldhauser, the commander of Africa Command, and is seeking to target al Qaeda targets in Somalia.

Foreign Policy informs us that the Pentagon is looking for ways to increase support for Saudi Arabia’s two-year-old war against Houthi rebels in Yemen, signaling a possible expansion of Washington’s controversial backing for a campaign that human rights groups say has killed hundreds of civilians and fueled a growing humanitarian crisis. Numerous officials have said that the prospect of more American help for the Saudi campaign is being discussed as the Trump administration examines its broader strategy in the region, including looking for ways to counter Iran and defeat ISIS militants. The Pentagon views increased for the Saudi-led coalition as one way to achieve both these goals while shoring up ties with an ally that felt neglected under the previous administration. The Trump administration has yet to make a final decision. The Post adds that Defense Secretary James Mattis sent a memo to the White House earlier this month explaining that an increase in support for the Saudi-led efforts—including a planned Emirati offensive to retake the key Red Sea port of Hodeida—would help combat a “common threat.”

The Post also reports that a U.S. airstrike last week in southeastern Afghanistan killed an al Qaeda operative connected to multiple terrorist attacks, including a hotel bombing in 2008 that killed two U.S. service members. In a statement, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis claimed that “the death of Qari Yasin is evidence that terrorists who defame Islam and deliberately target innocent people will not escape justice.”

The U.S. military acknowledged for the first time on Saturday that it launched an airstrike against ISIS in the city of Mosul that may have killed more than 100 civilians, according to the Post. If confirmed, the March 17th strike would mark the largest loss of civilian life since the United States began striking targets in Iraq and Syria in 2014. Allegations of large-scale civilian casualties deepen questions about the conduct of counterterrorism operations under Trump, who promised to act more aggressively to stamp out militant groups. Reuters notes that there have been conflicting reports about exactly how many casualties there were and what happened, with the Iraqi military command saying that witnesses told them that the building in which civilians were slain was booby-trapped and that ISIS had used residents as human shields as the targeting began.

The BBC discloses that the Islamic State alleges that the United States has launched airstrikes targeting the Tabqa dam near Raqqa, the so-called caliphate’s largest stronghold in Syria. These allegations have spread fear across the city’s civilian population but U.S.-backed fighters in the conflict have denied hitting the dam.

The Military Times tells us that U.S. military advisers in Mosul have begun wearing black uniforms similar to those preferred by Iraqi special forces troops, in an attempt to blend into what has become an arduous block-by-block fight against ISIS militants. The move demonstrates both the unique closeness the American advisers have developed with their Iraqi counterparts and how close to the action some Americans have moved since Trump challenged the Pentagon to bring more force to bear against ISIS. There is no overarching policy dictating what gear can be worn on the battlefield, as long as it complies with the directives of the individual unit commander and distinguishes the soldier from civilians as per the Geneva Conventions, which is done using insignia such as American flag patches.

The Post informs us that an influential group of Japanese politicians is publicly arguing Japan to acquire the independent ability to strike North Korea instead of having to rely on the United States for its defense as the threat of North Korean aggression grows in the wake of its recent missile tests. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe publicly supports consideration of the idea, which is at odds with Japan’s pacifist constitution. Abe has been trying to loosen the constitutional shackles on Japan’s military, notably with a 2015 law allowing Japan to come to the aid of the United States, and would like to revise the constitution to give Japan a normal military.

ICYMI: This Weekend, on Lawfare

Quinta Jurecic posted the Lawfare Podcast, featuring audio of HPSCI Ranking Member Rep. Adam Schiff’s remarks at the Brookings Institution last Tuesday.

In the Foreign Policy Essay, Jacob Stokes and Alexander Sullivan argued that China will not fix North Korea, offering four other areas of focus instead.

Peter Margulies commented on a Virginia federal district court’s clarification of the Establishment Clause in upholding President Trump’s revised refugee executive order.

Quinta examined whether the Justice Department just admitted doubts over Trump’s oath in its brief on appeal in International Refugee Assistance Project v. Trump.

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