Today's Headlines and Commentary

Today's Headlines and Commentary

By Jordan Brunner
Tuesday, April 11, 2017, 1:51 PM

The New York Times tells us that the White House accused the Russian government this afternoon of engaging in a cover-up of the chemical weapons attack last week by Syrian forces that prompted American airstrikes. In a declassified four-page report that details United States intelligence on the chemical weapons attack, the White House asserted that the Syrian and Russian governments have sought to confuse the world community about the assault through disinformation and “false narratives.” Senior White House officials said Russia’s goal was to cover up Syrian regime culpability.

The revelation comes as the Wall Street Journal reports that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has landed in Moscow, where he will seek to convince Russia to back away from its support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Tillerson’s visit comes amidst increasingly sour relations between the United States and Russia following U.S. airstrikes on a Syrian airbase in response to a chemical weapons attack by the regime. Before Tillerson touched down, the Russian Foreign Ministry in a statement that the United States was pursuing a policy of “American exceptionalism,” punishing Russia economically and trying to limits its influence internationally. CNN informs us that Tillerson has touched down without a game plan from G7 allies, after a meeting of G7 foreign ministers rejected a British plan to impose new sanctions on Syria and Russia for the chemical attacks, which the UK had hoped would strengthen Tillerson’s hand.

Meanwhile, Russia is sending more warships towards Syria following the U.S. strikes against the airbase. The ships are being redeployed from the Russian Navy’s Baltic Fleet, and are set to arrive over the next several days off the coast of Syria. The United States has also begun calling in more resources to protect American troops in Syria, Reuters tells us.

The Washington Post reports that besides discussing sanctions against Syria and Russia, Tillerson and the six other foreign ministers met on the sidelines of the formal G7 talks to strategize on a way forward to end the protracted civil war in Syria. Reuters adds that the G7 foreign ministers also sat down with their counterparts from Turkey, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, and Qatar—all of whom are opposed to Assad’s rule—to strategize about ways they could help in efforts to isolate the embattled Syrian leader.

Following comments by White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer yesterday that "[i]f you gas a baby, if you put a barrel bomb into innocent people, I think you will see a response from this president,” the White House has clarified that the United States will not treat the Assad regime’s use of barrel bombs as a possible prompt for further military action. NBC News notes that Spicer, in his clarification, said that “[n]othing has changed in our posture,” and said that he was only referring to barrel bombs containing chlorine or other industrial chemicals. But the Guardian points out, in chronicling the five different policies on Syria the Trump administration has articulated in the past two weeks, that even Spicer’s clarification would still represent a substantial expansion of the U.S. rules of engagement in Syria. The Times points out Trump himself has been notably silent following the airstrikes, leaving his Cabinet secretaries and aides to speak in his stead.

Trump tweeted this morning that “North Korea is looking for trouble,” and that if China fails to assist, then the United States “will solve the problem without them.” The tweet comes as Post tells us that North Korea has threatened to respond militarily, possibly with a nuclear strike, if Pyongyang determines that the United States will take preemptive measures against it, decrying the deployment of the USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier and its battle group to waters off the Korean peninsula as “outrageous. Even so, it seems that China is following through with its ban on North Korean coal, as a fleet of North Korean ships head home to the port of Nampo laden down with the coal they were carrying after the Chinese government instructed its trading companies to return the coal, Reuters informs us. And Foreign Policy notes that Trump’s plans to ratchet up pressure on North Korea could face a major setback if South Korea elects a more progressive president who has argued for a less confrontational approach after the impeachment and arrest of Park Geun-hye.

Buzzfeed reports that a bipartisan group of 31 members of Congress is demanding that the Trump administration provide a detailed account of Saudi Arabia’s bombing campaign in Yemen, including instances of potential war crimes, before approving the transfer of precision-guided bombs to the Gulf state. The demand, which was detailed in a letter to Defense Secretary James Mattis and Secretary Tillerson, follows a decision by the State Department to resume the sale of precision-guided weapons to Saudi Arabia, after the Obama administration suspended the sale of about $390 million worth of precision munitions guidance systems at the end of last year amid recurring allegations of Saudi-led bombings of schools, markets, clinics and factories in Yemen. A copy of the letter is available here.

ABC News tells us that the Trump administration will move forward with a weapons sale to the Nigeria for use in its campaign against the militant Boko Haram group, despite concerns over abuses committed by the country’s military. The Nigerian air force has been accused of bombing civilian targets at least three times in recent years. In the worst incident, a fighter jet on Jan. 17 repeatedly bombed a camp at Rann, killing between 100 and 236 civilians and aid workers. That action prompted the Obama administration to abruptly the sale of aircraft to the country.

AFP notes that the Iraqi Army claims that ISIS is now in control of less than seven percent of Iraq. Iraqi military spokesman Brigadier General Yahya Rasool said that, in 2014, ISIS controlled forty percent of Iraq, and now only controls 6.8 percent.

Embattled Trump aide Sebastian Gorka, who is vying for become the presidential special envoy to Libya, recently suggested a plan to partition the country into thirds, according to the Guardian. The European diplomat with whom Gorka was meeting responded that this would be “the worst solution,” for Libya. Gorka’s actions have raised the concern of European allies that the White House may reverse the Obama administration’s strong support for the UN-backed Libyan government of national accord based in Tripoli, favoring instead the rival government based in Tobruk, which is backed by Russia. Gorka has recently been under pressure over his ties with far-right Hungarian groups.

The BBC writes that Spanish police have arrested a Russian programmer under a U.S. international arrest warrant on charges of large-scale hacking. Spanish police said Pyotr Levashov controlled a botnet called Kelihos, hacking information and installing malicious software in hundreds of thousands of computers. The arrest was part of a "complex inquiry carried out in collaboration with the FBI", to capture Levashov. A Spanish court will hear whether he can be extradited to the United States.

The BBC also informs us that French centrist presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron launched his campaign with a plan to tackle terrorism by forcing internet firms to release encrypted messages. Speaking at his Paris launch, Mr Macron said he wants to legally compel social media companies to give authorities access to encrypted messages between terror suspects. "Democratic states must have access to content exchanged between terrorists on social media and instant messaging," Macron said, arguing that it is "no longer acceptable" for companies to insist that they have a contractual obligation to clients after offering protected communication.

The Hill reports that the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals will hear the government’s appeal of a Virginia-based district judge’s order blocking Trump’s revised travel ban executive order. The arguments in the Fourth Circuit are set for May 8th, while arguments before the Ninth Circuit on appeal from a Hawaii-based district judge’s order blocking the travel ban are scheduled for May 15th.

ICYMI: Yesterday, on Lawfare

Daphna Renan flagged her recent paper on structures of executive branch legal review at work in the presidential decision-making process.

Dave Aitel critiqued elements of a recent paper by Tim Maurer, Ariel Levite, and George Perkovich, which they flagged on Lawfare.

Grayson Clary commented on the Shadow Brokers’ dump of the rest of the NSA documents.

Benjamin Wittes and Jack Goldsmith posted about the next Hoover Book Soiree, where Ben will join Russell Miller and Ralf Poscher to discuss their contributions to a new book of essays, Privacy & Power: A Transatlantic Dialogue in the Shadow of the NSA-Affair.

Kenneth Anderson flagged Professor Richard Armitage’s topic for this year’s 19th Annual Grotius Lecture at the ASIL Annual Meeting.

Kenneth also flagged the Supreme Court’s grant of certiorari in Jesner v. Arab Bank, a new Alien Tort Statute case.

Paul Salem and Randa Slim argued that the United States will need a “diplomatic surge,” in Iraq, akin to the “surge” of 2007 by the military, as it begins to wind down the fight against ISIS.

Ingrid Wuerth asked whether international law has a “broken windows” problem.

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