Today's Headlines and Commentary

Today's Headlines and Commentary

By Jordan Brunner
Thursday, April 13, 2017, 2:53 PM

CNN reports that the United States has dropped its largest non-nuclear bomb on what the Pentagon has claimed are ISIS tunnels, in Nangarhar province in Afghanistan. This marks the first time that the bomb, known as a Massive Ordinance Air Blast Bomb, and nicknamed the “Mother of All Bombs,” has been used on the battlefield, and the military is currently assessing the damage. Army General John Nicholson, commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, signed off on the bomb’s use.

The New York Times writes that an airstrike by anti-ISIS coalition forces killed 18 Syrian fighters allied with the United States. The strike, which was carried out on Tuesday in Tabqah, Syria, was the third time in a month that American-led airstrikes may have killed civilians or allies, and comes as the Pentagon is investigating two previous airstrikes that killed or wounded numerous civilians. The strike was requested by coalition forces against a location identified as an “ISIS fighting position” but where the Syrian Democratic Forces were located instead.

U.K. signals intelligence agency GCHQ played a crucial role in alerting the U.S. intelligence community that there had been contacts between members of Donald Trump’s campaign team and Russian intelligence operatives, the Guardian tells us. GCHQ first became aware in late 2015 of suspicious “interactions” between figures connected to then-presidential candidate Trump and known or suspected Russian agents, which the agency communicated to the United States as part of a routine exchange of information. Over the next six months, a number of foreign intelligence agencies shared further information on contacts between Trump’s inner circle and Russians, including those from Germany, Estonia, Poland, and Australia. The latter is a member of the “Five Eyes,” intelligence alliance, which includes the United States, the UK, Canada, and New Zealand. The alleged conversations were picked up by chance as part of routine surveillance of Russian intelligence assets.

The Washington Post informs us that President Donald Trump said he has “confidence” in FBI Director James Comey, but it was “not too late” to fire him. Trump’ comments are especially important now because Comey has now confirmed that the Bureau is investigating possible coordination between the Russian government and the Trump campaign to influence the presidential election. The FBI Director serves a fixed, ten-year term to insulate the Bureau from political influence.

The Post also reports that Paul Manafort, Trump’s former campaign manager, has signaled that he plans to register as a foreign agent for his past work on behalf of political figures in Ukraine. Manafort, if he files under the Foreign Agents Registration Act, would become the second former senior Trump adviser in recent weeks to retroactively acknowledge the need to disclose foreign work, with former national security adviser Michael Flynn, having done so last month to declare his work on behalf of Turkish interests. Manafort’s ties to Ukraine have been controversial because he worked for a Ukrainian oligarch, ­Viktor Yanukovych, who became aligned with Russian President Vladi­mir Putin.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said during his joint press conference with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov that Tillerson told Russian President Vladimir Putin that relations between the two countries are at "a low point" as Moscow’s support for Syria, Russia’s meddling in the 2016 presidential election, and a number of other issues continue to play out, according to NBC News. Both Tillerson and Lavrov said they support a political solution in Syria, but throughout the press conference, Lavrov continued to cast doubt on the U.S. assertion that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad ordered a chemical weapons attack on the Syrian people in Idlib province. Tillerson’s comments to Putin came as the Military Times reports that Trump voiced a similar sentiment during a White House news conference, saying U.S.-Russian relations were at an “all-time low.” The comments by both Tillerson and Trump come only weeks after Trump was poised to complete a potentially historical rapprochement with Russia, the Kremlin’s hopes for which have been all but dashed amid the back-and-forth over Syria and allegations of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.

Hours after Putin’s conversation with Tillerson, Russia vetoed a draft resolution sponsored by the United States, France, and Britain at the U.N. Security Council that would have strengthened the ability of international investigators to look into the details of a chemical attack against Syrian civilians on April 4, the Times tells us. After the vote, U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley said she regretted that Russia had chosen to use its veto power for the eighth time to back the Syrian government, tweeting later “after today's vote to hold Syria accountable it's: A strong day for the US, a weak day for Russia, a new day for China & doomsday for Assad.” The Hill adds that Trump applauded China for its decision to abstain from voting on the resolution, a welcome development for America as it works to ramp up pressure on Assad.

CNN informs us that the U.S. military and intelligence community intercepted communications featuring Syrian military and chemical experts talking about preparations for the chemical attack against the Syrian civilians in Idlib, as part of an immediate review of all intelligence in the hours after the attack to confirm responsibility for the attack. U.S. officials have said that there is “no doubt” that Assad is responsible for the attack. So far there are no intelligence intercepts that have been found directly confirming that Russian military or intelligence officials communicated about the attack. CNN adds that Assad has dismissed reports of last week's chemical attack as "100% fabrication.”

Stars and Stripes notes that Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov said yesterday that his country will consider reopening a phone line with the United States used to avoid aircraft collisions over Syria only if the U.S. agrees to stop attacking Syrian government targets. The line of communication between the Russian and the U.S. military, known as the “deconfliction line,” has been used since late 2015 to coordinate daily airstrikes in Syria. The Russians cut the line in the immediate aftermath of the U.S. cruise missiles destroyed Syrian fighter jets that had ostensibly been used to commit the chemical weapons attack against Syrian civilians in Idlib province.

The Guardian writes that Japan is preparing to send several warships to join the USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier strike group heading for the Korean peninsula as it enters the East China Sea, a show of force designed to deter North Korea from conducting further missile and nuclear tests. The move comes as Chinese President Xi Jinping called for calm in the region in a phone conversation with Donald Trump. Sources say the Japanese and U.S. ships will take part in joint exercises, including helicopter landings on each other’s vessels and communications drills, as the Carl Vinson passes through waters of Japan. The Japan Times adds that the United States told Japan prior to a U.S.-China summit last week that it could resort to military action against North Korea unless Beijing steps up pressure on Pyongyang to curb its nuclear and missile ambitions.

Meanwhile, Trump reversed his course on NATO yesterday during a joint press conference with NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, saying “I said it was obsolete. It's no longer obsolete,” according to the Post. For more than a year, Trump has complained that NATO costs the United States too much money and has suggested replacing it with an alternative organization focused on counterterrorism. Trump professed that his criticisms prompted the alliance to make changes that satisfied his concerns.

The AP reports that a member of Qatar's ruling family paid $2 million to a Greek shoe salesman's firm to secure "proof of life" and ultimately free relatives and others kidnapped in Iraq, most likely by Shiite militiamen, over a year ago. The payment shed new light on the opaque world of private hostage negotiation in the Middle East in a case that now involves hackers, encrypted internet communication and promises of millions of dollars in ransom payments.

The Miami Herald writes that prosecutors in the Sept. 11 conspiracy case are asking a higher court to reinstate two charges that were recently dismissed by the trial judge, in a first in the 9/11 death-penalty case. Chief Prosecutor Brig. Gen. Mark Martins is asking the U.S. Court of Military Commissions Review to reinstate two non-capital charges of attacking civilian objects and destruction of property. Military judge Army Colonel James Pohl dismissed the charges, seeming to agree with defense lawyers who argued that the statute of limitations had run out on the two charges and ruling that the prohibition against applying laws ex post facto pertained to both.

ICYMI: Yesterday, on Lawfare

Ingrid Wuerth explained how the Syrian airstrikes make the world less safe by putting pressure on the U.N. Charter-based international legal system.

Bob Bauer discussed a recent paper he authored dealing with executive transparency and a White House obligation to disclose.

Emma Kohse and Chris Mirasola provided a brief primer on the future of the Cyber Command-NSA and Cyber Command-Strategic Command relationships.

Shannon Togawa Mercer flagged a new book on the legal implications of Brexit, of which she is one of the authors.

Stewart Baker posted the Steptoe Cyberlaw Podcast, featuring his interview with Nicholas Weaver.

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