Today's Headlines and Commentary

Today's Headlines and Commentary

By Jordan Brunner
Tuesday, March 28, 2017, 3:22 PM

The New York Times tells us that President Donald Trump signed a much-anticipated executive order rolling back most of former President Barack Obama’s legacy on climate change, celebrating the move as a way to promote energy independence. Flanked by coal miners at a signing ceremony at the EPA, Trump directed the agency to start the legal process of withdrawing from the Clean Power Plan, along with a suite of Obama-era climate and environmental policies, including lifting a short-term ban on new coal mining on public lands. Even so, Politico reports that the actions don’t appear to go far enough for conservatives in dismantling the EPA’s authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions and will not separate the United States from the landmark Paris Agreement climate accord, two areas that have caused intense disagreement within the administration.

The Washington Post writes that the Trump administration appears to have attempted to prevent former acting Attorney General Sally Yates from testifying before the House Intelligence Committee.  The Justice Department notified Yates earlier this month that the administration considers a great deal of her possible testimony to be covered by the presidential communications privilege. After Yates’s lawyer informed both the Justice Department and the White House that Yates disagreed with the invocation of executive privilege, HPSCI Chairman Devin Nunes abruptly canceled the public hearing set for today in which Yates was to testify.

Reuters informs us that executives from a Russian bank under Western economic sanctions said yesterday that President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and senior White House adviser Jared Kushner met with them during the transition period before Trump’s inauguration. Kushner, who has agreed to testify before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence as part of its investigation into Russian interference with the 2016 presidential election, acknowledged meeting with the Russian ambassador to the United States, Sergey Kislyak, during that time, but only yesterday did new revelations about his meetings with representatives from Vnesheconombank (VEB) surface.

HPSCI Chairman Devin Nunes has canceled all remaining meetings for this week amid uproar Nunes’s behavior last week, when he decided to brief Trump on intelligence information he received on the White House grounds without informing the Democratic members of the HPSCI, according to CNN. The behavior has met with calls from top Democrats for Nunes’s removal from investigations into Russian interference with the 2016 presidential election and possible ties between Trump associates and Russian operatives. The Times tells us that those calling for Nunes’s recusal including Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and HPSCI Ranking Member Adam Schiff. The back and forth threatens to place the entire investigation in jeopardy. Nevertheless, Nunes said this morning that he is “moving forward,” with the investigation. Politico adds that Senator John McCain (R-AZ) says that Nunes should “absolutely” reveal the sources of the intelligence information he received, and said that it was necessary for the HPSCI to be bipartisan or it would lose its credibility. Politico also notes that former Vice President Dick Cheney made a public statement that the interference by Russia “could be considered an act of war.”

The Wall Street Journal writes that after finally beginning press briefings on March 7—around six weeks into the administration—the State Department has abruptly ended them again. The briefings, which were a near daily occurrence under the Obama administration and were watched closely by foreign leaders and U.S. diplomats for public guidance on U.S. policy, won’t resume for at least two weeks until Tillerson can find a replacement for Mark Toner, a career foreign service officer who has been the acting State Department spokesman but has been assigned elsewhere. Heather Nauert, a Fox News anchor, is expected to take Toner’s place. Until then, the State Department will hold background briefings, in which unnamed officials will brief intermittently on specific topics.

The BBC notes that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s use of the words “interim zones of stability” to describe what the Trump administration hopes to create in Syria has generated concern and confusion. A senior State Department official clarified that the term refers to pockets of stability in Syria’s two conflicts: areas where coalition forces have defeated ISIS militants, and areas where ceasefires, ostensibly negotiated by Turkey, Russia, and Iran in Astana, could “de-escalate” the civil war. The official said the administration is looking for ways to reinforce any areas of stability that can be safe for civilians, including along the borders of key allies such as Jordan and Turkey.

Iran is allowing Russia to use its military bases on a “case-by-case” basis to launch airstrikes against militants in Syria, according to Reuters. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif made the announcement yesterday, reversing Iran’s policy of prohibiting Russian use of Iranian airbases because under an Iranian constitutional provision forbidding the locating of foreign military bases on Iranian soil. Iran and Russia are both key allies of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and have played a decisive role in turning the civil war there in his favor.

Foreign Policy tells us that a series of airstrikes that have allegedly killed hundreds of civilians tracks the Trump administration’s increasing delegation of authority to American commanders on the ground. The largest of the strikes occurred on March 17 in Mosul, with American officials confirming it struck near the vicinity of a building housing civilians. American investigators are currently examining documents and photographs of the March 17 strikes and others in an attempt to determine if any civilian casualties are the result of coalition airstrikes. But even with all of the reports of alleged casualties, the Pentagon is not planning on making any changes to the way it carries out attacks. The Times adds that Iraqi officers have said that American-led coalition has been quicker to strike urban targets from the air and has spent less time weighing the risks of civilian casualties, reflecting a renewed push by the Trump administration to speed up the battle for Mosul.

The United States, Britain, France, and other major powers are protesting as the United Nations begins work on what backers say would be a binding prohibition on nuclear weapons, according to the Post. Russia and China sat out on the opening General Assembly session, with Russia having voted against the effort last fall and China abstaining. The proposed ban, backed by U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, Pope Francis, and dozens of humanitarian and nonproliferation groups, sets most of the nuclear powers against more than 100 non-nuclear states.

The Post tells us that the Scottish Parliament has passed a motion in favor of a second referendum vote on independence from the United Kingdom. The vote, which was largely expected to come out in favor of a referendum, sets the stage for a conflict between UK Prime Minister Theresa May, who does not favor Scottish independence, and Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, who leads the party in favor of it.  

Reuters tells us that NATO plans to spend 3 billion euros to upgrade its satellite and computer technology over the next three years as the alliance adopts to new threats. The investments seeks to deter hackers and Iranian missiles, and demonstrates NATO’s recognition that conflicts are increasingly fought on computer networks as well as in the air, on land, and at sea. 1.7 billion euros will go to satellites and drone technology for surveillance to help support troops and ships deployed across the alliance, while the remainder would be spent on securing computer systems that help command air and missile defenses and on more secure mobile communications for soldiers in the field.

Reuters also notes that Montenegro is on the verge of becoming NATO’s newest member on Monday after U.S. senators overwhelmingly voted to clear the way for a long-delayed final vote on its accession to the alliance. Tillerson wrote the leaders of the Senate earlier this month to say that Montenegro’s membership in NATO was “strongly in the interests of the United States.”   

Reuters reports that China appears to have largely completed major construction of military infrastructure on artificial islands it has built in the South China Sea and can now deploy combat planes and other military hardware there at any time, according to a report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. CSIS cited satellite images taken this month, which seem to show new radar antennae on the Fiery Cross and Subi reefs of the Spratly Islands. China has denied U.S. charges that it is militarizing the South China Sea, with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang saying last week that defense equipment on the islands was there to protect “freedom of navigation.”   

Cyberscoop reports that U.N. officials are looking into a North Korean cybersecurity startup in Kuala Lampur, Malaysia, which was run by North Korean operatives and until last year publicly sold a variety of products including iPhone apps, web development apps, and even cybersecurity tools. The now defunct company, Adnet International, was among a dynamic group of North Korean front companies in Malaysia, many designed to avoid international sanctions on the rogue state.   

ICYMI: Yesterday, on Lawfare

Quinta Jurecic flagged Military Commissions Chief Prosecutor Mark Martins’ statement for March 24.

Emma Kohse chronicled debates over black site closings, victim impact evidence, and international humanitarian law in the 3/22 session of the military commissions.  

Benjamin Wittes and Jack Goldsmith provided a reminder about tomorrow’s Hoover Book Soiree on Graeme Wood’s The Way of the Strangers: Encounters with the Islamic State.

Christopher Kojm and Adam Klein contrasted the 9/11 Commission investigation with the HPSCI investigation to demonstrate how bipartisanship should work on an intelligence committee.

Jack provided counter arguments to Susan Hennessey and Ben’s post on the need for a select committee on the Russia connection.

Susan and Chris Mirasola examined whether China just quietly authorized law enforcement to access data anywhere in the world.

Alexander Pirang asked what Germany’s Basic Law can tell us about protecting democracy in an age of rising authoritarianism.

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