Today's Headlines and Commentary

Today's Headlines and Commentary

By Jordan Brunner
Thursday, March 30, 2017, 2:24 PM

Two White House officials showed House Permanent Select Committee Chairman Devin Nunes intelligence reports indicating incidental collection of information about Trump associates, the New York Times writes. According to anonymous officials, Nunes was given the information by Ezra Cohen-Watnick, the senior director for intelligence at the National Security Council, and Michael Ellis, now of the Office of White House Counsel but who previously worked on the staff of the House Intelligence Committee. Cohen-Watnick, who was appointed by former national security advisor Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, was recently the subject of attention when Trump intervened to prevent him from being removed to a different position on the National Security council by current National Security Advisor Gen. H.R. McMaster. The reports did not contain communications by Trump associates, as Nunes had announced, but rather consisted of communications between foreign officials discussing their attempts to develop contacts within the Trump team.

Foreign Policy writes that as the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election collapses into partisan rancor and infighting, the leaders of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence appeared shoulder-to-shoulder yesterday to pledge that their probe will feature a bipartisan focus on the evidence. SSCI Chairman Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) said “the investigation’s scope will always go where the intelligence leads,” and that “it is absolutely critical that every day we spend trying to separate fact from fiction.” Yesterday marked the first public update by Burr and Senator Mark Warner (D-VA), the ranking member on the Committee, about the progress of the Senate investigation. The panel will conduct its first public hearings today with a host of independent experts who will describe Russia’s past use of intelligence and disinformation.

CNN tells us that Russian President Vladimir Putin has denied that he interfered in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, saying to a direct question about whether he had meddled, “read my lips: no.” This morning’s comments were the most emphatic denial by the Russian leader yet, and are the first since President Donald Trump took office. Putin also played down the meeting between Trump’s son-in-law and senior White House adviser Jared Kushner and Sergey Gorkov, chairman of the Russian state development bank, VneshEconomBank, which has been under US sanctions since July 2014, with Putin saying, “of course [Americans and Russian bankers] hold meetings.”

Newsweek reports that FBI Director James Comey wanted to publicly discuss Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election as early as the summer of 2016, but that Obama administration officials blocked him from doing so. Well before the intelligence community assessment accused the Russian government of tampering with the U.S. election, Comey pitched the idea of writing an op-ed about the Russian active measures campaign, but did not receive approval from the White House to go forward with the idea.

The Trump administration has relaxed an Obama-era policy meant to limit civilian casualties away from areas of active hostilities in certain areas of Somalia, the Times writes. President Trump had already designated regions of Yemen as areas of active hostilities, placing them outside the scope of President Obama’s Presidential Policy Guidelines, which requires rigorous interagency vetting of proposed counterterrorism strikes and a near certainty that a strike will not cause civilian casualties. The relaxing of the guidelines in Somalia will apply for at least 180 days.

Foreign Policy notes that in testimony before the House Armed Services Committee, CENTCOM commander Gen. Joseph Votel warned that close fighting between Iraqi forces and militants using human shields and booby-trapped houses to slow their advance makes it harder to avoid civilian casualties. But Votel stressed that the U.S. military would strike to avoid civilian casualties, and that the rules of engagement for U.S. airstrikes had not changed in recent months. The move to speed up approval and implementation of airstrikes has raised questions about the potential U.S. role in the deaths of approximately 250 civilians on March 17. The Washington Post tells us that Representative Ted Lieu (D-CA), a former Air Force lawyer and a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, sent a letter to Defense Secretary James Mattis requesting information on how the Trump administration is waging its air campaign against ISIS, drawing attention to comments by Trump during the election and suggesting that the administration may be in violation of the laws of war.

Buzzfeed examines how the death of a U.S. military contractor exposes concerns about the United States’ Syria strategy as the Department of Defense Inspector General investigates.

The Hill reports that Gen. Votel also testified yesterday that ISIS is “extraordinarily savvy” in using cyber capabilities, but that the military is making gains against the group in cyberspace. Votel said that the military started out with little expertise of how to target ISIS, but that officials at Central Command, Cyber Command, and Special Operations Command that are “creating effects on the ground.” Meanwhile, the Hill adds that the White House, in a letter to Congress, renewed an Obama-era cyber national emergency that was used as a basis for freezing the assets of Russians tied to the hacking campaign aimed at disrupting the presidential election.

The Post tells us that Turkey and the United States are no closer to resolving the question of whether the Kurdish YPG should be included in the fight on Raqqa issue after Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s visit to Ankara today. While the Kurdish fighters remain the most effective force against ISIS, Turkey sees the YPG as a terrorist organization and wants the United States to instead partner with the Turkish military and Turkish-backed forces in Syria to retake Raqqa. Tillerson said that he and Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu had discussed “a number of options and alternatives,” but had not reached an agreement, with Cavusoglu saying that the issue continues to damage U.S. relations with Turkey.

The BBC writes that Turkey said it has “successfully” ended its seven-month Euphrates Shield military campaign in northern Syria, but Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim did not rule out new military operations and did not say whether Turkish troops would leave Syria. Yildirim spoke as Tillerson arrived in Turkey, and said that any further military operations would go under a different name.

The Post informs us that the State Department notified Congress yesterday that it supports selling F-16 fighter jets to Bahrain without requiring the island monarchy to improve its human rights record. The decision amounts to an abrupt reversal of the Obama administration’s decision to precondition the $5 billion sale of Lockheed Martin F-16s on Bahrain’s curbing of crackdowns on dissidents. The about-face reflects the Trump administration’s intense focus on countering Iran’s influence in the region, along with keeping the strategic country, which is home to the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet, within the U.S. orbit. The sale kicks off a 40-day review by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the House Foreign Affairs Committee, followed by a 30-day review before the sale can move forward. The Times adds that the sale may be read by other countries in the region like Saudi Arabia as a sign that the new administration plans to ease its demands to protect and respect political dissidents and protesters.

The Wall Street Journal reports that wealthy Gulf Arab states have been pressuring Western suppliers of military equipment into transferring technical knowledge to local companies if they want to keep their business in those countries. The rulers of countries like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are seeking to become less dependent on the U.S. and other Western countries, and see the defense sector as a way to bolster their oil-based economies as their existing defense companies continue to rise. Last year the Saudi government announced that it wanted half of the money it allots to defense to be spent at local firms by 2030, a goal that even if partially achieved will reverberate across the global defense industry.

The Post informs us that Arab leaders reaffirmed their support for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict yesterday after their annual meeting, a move seen as a unified message for Trump as three Arab leaders visit Washington next month. In a communique, the Arab League called for a fresh series of peace talks and renewed an offer of “reconciliation” with the Jewish state, if Israel returns the Arab lands it has occupied. The statements comes weeks after Trump broke with decades of diplomatic precedent by seemingly stepping back from the U.S. commitment to eventual Palestinian diplomatic statehood. The Journal adds that David Friedman was sworn in as the U.S. ambassador to Israel, Trump’s first ambassadorial appointment to be confirmed.

FP examines how the United Nations may seek to emphasize the counterterrorism relevance its missions, such as its controversial mission in Mali, to avoid massive cuts to programs proposed by the Trump administration.

The Post tells us that U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley said yesterday that the U.N. is partnering with a “corrupt” government in Congo, and called for the large cut in the world’s peacekeeping mission there. Yesterday, the Congolese government revealed that the bodies of an American and a Swedish investigator for the U.N. and a Congolese colleague were found on Monday in a shallow grave in a region that has seen months of deadly fighting between government troops and local militias, with Congo saying it would investigate. The UN Security Council is preparing to vote on a resolution tomorrow that would extend the mandate of the UN peacekeeping mission in the country.

The Hawaii-based federal district court judge who blocked key portions of Trump’s travel ban executive order has extended his temporary restraining order into a preliminary injunction, according to the Times. The government had asked Judge Derrick Watson to narrow his ruling to cover only the part of the travel ban that suspends new visas from six Muslim-majority countries, saying a change in refugee policy had no effect on Hawaii. But Watson rejected this argument, preventing the administration from halting the flow of refugees.

ICYMI: Yesterday, on Lawfare

Quinta Jurecic posted video of the joint statement by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence’s Chairman Sen. Richard Burr and ranking member Sen. Mark Warner.

Bobby Chesney provided historical context for today’s surveillance debates by looking back to 1945 legal memo on Operation Shamrock.

Ingrid Wuerth examined international law and the Trump administration.

Shannon Togawa Mercer commented on the UK formally notifying the EU of its intention to leave.

J. Dana Stuster updated the Middle East Ticker.

Alex Vatanka and Michael Rubin explained how Iran and Turkey pose problems for Trump in Syria.

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