Today's Headlines and Commentary

Today's Headlines and Commentary

By Jordan Brunner
Friday, March 31, 2017, 12:27 PM

The Wall Street Journal reports that former national security adviser Michael Flynn told the FBI and the House and Senate investigators who are examining the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia that he is willing to be interviewed in exchange for immunity from prosecution, according to his lawyer. However, the official said congressional leaders were unwilling to broker a deal with Flynn until they more fully understood the information that Flynn has offer. A grant of immunity would require approval from two-thirds of the congressional committee requesting testimony or a majority vote in the full House or Senate, as well as the approval of a district court judge. Robert Kelner, Flynn’s lawyer, did not give specifics about the term under which Flynn would testify, but said that no one would submit to questioning in such a highly politicized environment with assurances of unfair prosecution. The Hill provides a compilation of Democratic responses to Flynn’s announcement here.

U.S. and U.K. intelligence officials had serious concerns about Michael Flynn’s appointment as the White House national security adviser because of his history of contacts with Moscow and his encounter with a Russian-British graduate student who had trusted access to Russian spy agency records, named Svetlana Lokhova, the Guardian tells us. Flynn kept in email contact with Lokhova through unclassified channels after their initial meeting at a dinner while he was still director of the Defense Intelligence Agency.

The Washington Post identifies a third White House official who was involved in handing intelligence to House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence Chairman Devin Nunes: John Eisenberg, National Security Council Legal Advisor. Ezra Cohen-Watnick, the NSC official who initially gathered the information, provided it to Eisenberg. The second White House official whom the New York Times initially reported was involved, Michael Ellis of the White House Counsel’s office, also reports to Eisenberg.

Meanwhile, HPSCI ranking member Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) asked yesterday whether the White House attempted to “launder” information through the HPSCI through Chairman Devin Nunes (R-CA), according to Politico. Responding to reports that high level White House staffers gave Nunes his information, Schiff questioned why the information wasn’t just taken to the president in the first place. In a letter to the leadership of the House and Senate intelligence committees, White House counsel Donald McGahn invited them to come to the White House to review the documents, though it is not clear whether they are the documents given to Nunes. A copy of the letter can be found here.

Former Senate Select Committee on Intelligence general counsel Suzanne Spalding argues at the Washington Post that the best opportunity for a “timely, fair, bipartisan and independent investigation” lies with the SSCI.

CNN informs us that President Donald Trump’s top foreign policy and defense officials publicly criticized Russia’s actions in comments today aimed at reassuring allies. Both Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Defense Secretary James Mattis criticized Russian involvement in Ukraine, with Mattis calling out the Putin regime for “mucking around,” in other people’s elections as he appeared in London with his British counterpart, a particularly notable claim considering the ongoing investigations by the House and Senate intelligence committees and the FBI.

The Post tells us that Russian President Vladimir Putin is becoming impatient over the continued delays in meeting with President Trump, accusing the upheaval in Washington of preventing Trump from implementing his agenda. At a panel of leaders of nations bordering the Arctic, Putin said that the timing of a meeting “depends to a large extent on the American side.”

Three national experts testified during a hearing of the House Foreign Affairs Committee yesterday that developing a conventional variant of the long-range air-launched cruise missile would be a way to respond to Russia’s continuing violation of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. Russia’s military actions in Georgia and Ukraine, economic intimidation, cyber attacks, and meddling in elections, when viewed in aggregate, may suggest that Russia no longer sees European security as being in its interests.

CNN informs us that Trump expects his meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida next month to be “very difficult,” with jobs and trade likely to dominate discussions, according to tweets he sent out yesterday evening. North Korean aggression and the military buildup of man-made islands in the South China Sea will also likely feature largely in the talks between the two heads of state.

The Journal writes that Malaysia sent the embalmed body of Kim Jong-nam, the late half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, back to North Korea yesterday in exchange for nine Malaysian nationals detained in Pyongyang, ending a tense diplomatic standoff. The plane carrying Kim’s body set off for China simultaneously with a plane from Pyongyang that carried three Malaysian diplomats and their six family members. Both governments have agreed to lift travel bans introduced earlier this month to prevent each other’s nationals from leaving their territories. Media outlets began airing video of the plane carrying Kim’s body purportedly showing two men that Malaysia had wanted to question as part of assassination plot on the plane. If the video is authentic, the men will evidently not face prosecution in Malaysia.

The New York Times tells us that as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson showered praise on the Turkish government yesterday despite what some critics have decried as its slide toward authoritarianism, he was met only with a laundry list of complaints. Tillerson’s visit to Ankara was intended to reassure a NATO ally in the fight against ISIS and a regional bulwark against Iran, but discussions about U.S. support for the Kurds fighting in northern Syria dominated the conversations and the joint press conference given by Tillerson and Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, as did the issue of Muslim cleric and the alleged orchestrator the attempted coup in Turkey last July, Fethullah Gulen. The Post profiles Tillerson’s insular style and mannerisms, which State Department officials fear will make the projection of American diplomatic power that much harder. NBC News adds that Tillerson will likely face tough questions from NATO foreign ministers over the danger posed by White House itself as he participates in his first NATO meeting in Brussels today, with the focus on Trump’s comments about NATO in the past.

The Hill reports that the EU will consider several different plans to require backdoors in encryption products this June, according to EU Commissioner for Human Rights Věra Jourová. Jourová said she would propose “three or four” plans requiring encrypted communications companies to provide law enforcement access to encrypted data “with a swift, reliable response,” with both voluntary and mandatory options.

The AP notes that the recent hack on the German Parliament may have led to a “significant drain of data,” which might be used to influence the outcome of the country’s election in September. Holger Muench, the head of Germany’s Federal Criminal Police Office, did not disclose who might have been behind the hack. German authorities have repeatedly expressed fears that foreign countries, likely including Russia, could try to influence the outcome of the election by releasing hacked information during the campaign.

The Times also reports that ISIS has a new tactic of herding local Iraqi residents into buildings in western Mosul, calculating that risking civilian casualties will restrain the United States from using airstrikes to retake the other half of the city. Colonel Joseph Scrocca, a spokesman for the coalition, said that ISIS is not using human shields, but is smuggling civilians into buildings so the coalition forces won’t see them and then inviting attack. Such an episode, in which one civilian was killed for resisting, was observed by American surveillance aircraft.

Reuters reports that U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley said yesterday that the diplomatic policy of the United States in Syria is no longer focused on making the country’s embattled president Bashar al-Assad leave power. The move is a radical departure from the policy of the Obama administration and also of numerous European allies of the United States, and comes as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said yesterday that Assad’s fate “will be decided by the Syrian people.” The comments by the senior foreign policy officials of the Trump administration were met with strenuous denunciations by Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain (R-AZ) and SASC member Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) in separate statements as “self-destructive and self-defeating.” More on their statements is available here.

Meanwhile, the Times writes that three Kosovar men living in Italy were detained by Italian police yesterday on suspicion of being a jihadist cell planning to blow up the Rialto Bridge, one of the top tourist attractions in Venice. One teenager, also from Kosovo, was arrested as well. In wiretapped conversations, the men celebrated the terrorist attack in London last week, and the teenager discussed putting a bomb at the Rialto Bridge. The Kosovars had been under surveillance since September 2015.

The Journal informs us that investigators have concluded that Khalid Masood, who perpetrated the attack on the Westminster Bridge last week, made a test run in the days before the attack. As police continue to try to piece together the motive behind the attack, two police officials said that tracking the GPS of Masood’s car showed that he drove across the Westminster Bridge and approached Parliament on March 18, just four days before the attack. The movements show premeditation, but also that he was not a trained terrorist, because he would have come on the same day of the week rather than a weekend.

ICYMI: Yesterday, on Lawfare

Sarah Tate Chambers examined Supreme Court nominee Judge Neil Gorsuch’s jurisprudence on computer searches in Part II of her three-party essay.

Kenneth Anderson flagged a new article by Lawfare contributor Alan Z. Rozenshtein on digital communications and data storage companies as “surveillance intermediaries.”

Benjamin Wittes posted the Rational Security podcast: The “We Need to Talk About Devin” Edition.

Quinta Jurecic posted the livestream of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence hearing on Russian Active Measures.

Peter Margulies commented on the Hawaii-based Judge Derrick Watson’s preliminary injunction of the travel ban executive order and its impact on separation of powers.

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