Today's Headlines and Commentary

Today's Headlines and Commentary

By Quinta Jurecic, Helen Klein Murillo
Tuesday, May 30, 2017, 4:28 PM

In another Friday-evening bombshell, the Washington Post reported that Jared Kushner proposed a secret and secure communications channel between the then-President Elect’s transition team and the Kremlin to Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, including the possible use of Russian diplomatic facilities in the United States. Meanwhile, the New York Times writes that federal and congressional investigations are looking closely at the motives behind a meeting between Kushner and Sergey Gorkov, the head of a U.S.-sanctioned Russian financial institution with ties to Russian intelligence. As the Times notes, officials now believe the meeting may have been part of Kushner’s effort to establish a direct line to the Kremlin outside of the usual diplomatic channels.

The U.S. intelligence community intercepted communications of Russian officials discussing their possession of allegedly “derogatory” information about Donald Trump and his senior aides during the presidential campaign, CNN tells us. The information may have pertained to the finances of Trump and his aides, though it is unclear whether the material discussed was exaggerated or fabricated.

On Friday, the Senate Intelligence Committee requested documents from the Trump campaign dating back to the campaign’s beginning in June 2015, in relation to the committee’s probe into Russian election interference, the Post reports. Some former campaign staffers have been asked to cooperate with the request. Previously, the committee had asked the campaign to preserve relevant documents.

At a campaign stop in Munich following President Trump’s tumultuous meeting with NATO leaders, German Chancellor Angela Merkel stated that, “The times in which we could rely fully on others—they are somewhat over,” a comment emphasizing perceptions of America’s waning influence and commitment to Europe under Trump’s leadership. Politico writes that Merkel’s statement shouldn’t lead us to sound alarm bells about the end of the postwar order, but it does indicate her cautious approach to the U.S.-German relationship. The Times has more.

The Post offers a detailed account of the way President Trump engages with his daily intelligence briefings, demanding brevity and preferring visuals, according to several senior administration officials who regularly attend the briefings. Although some senior officials insist that the President engages deeply in his briefings, the Post notes that recent intelligence breaches indicate “that the president may not be retaining all the intelligence he is presented, fully absorbing its nuance, or respecting the sensitivities of the information and how it was gathered.”

The United States has begun providing weapons to Syrian Kurds fighting alongside Syrian rebels in the battle against ISIS, NBC reports. The move is likely to create tensions with Turkey, which considers the Kurdish YPG to be a terrorist group. Earlier this month, the Pentagon approved a plan to begin arming the YPG in order to speed the effort to retake the Syrian city of Raqqa from ISIS forces.

Osama bin Laden’s 28-year-old son Hamza bin Laden has apparently succeeded his father as leader of al-Qaeda, reports the Post. The Post notes that he appeared on an audio recording several weeks ago advocating for attacks in Europe and North America, an apparent rebranding and comeback play for the organization as ISIS appears increasingly weakened.

ISIS has claimed responsibility for multiple bombings in central Baghdad on Monday and Tuesday that killed at least 38 people, according to the Post. The attacks come just days into the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, targeting areas likely to be heavily populated after sundown when observers break their daily fast. The insurgency-style attacks are likely designed to distract from the group’s losses elsewhere in the country.

Meanwhile, the Wall Street Journal reports that Secretary of Defense James Mattis indicated that the United States has shifted to “annihilation tactics” in the fight against ISIS, aiming to kill fighters rather than simply drive them from territory. Over the weekend, U.S.-coalition backed forces began an assault on vestiges of ISIS-controlled territory in Mosul. In reference to the fight for Mosul’s Old City, Secretary Mattis said, “Our intention is that the foreign fighters do not survive the fight to return home to North Africa, to Europe, to America, to Asia, to Africa.”

The Journal explains that French authorities have enlisted Iraqi forces to locate and target French citizens who hold senior posts in the terrorist organization. French special forces have provided key intelligence, including coordinates, in the secret operation. According to the Journal, the effort is intended to ensure that French nationals with ISIS-allegiances do not return to France to carry out terrorist attacks in the country.

The Post reports that the North Korean short-range ballistic missile launched Monday morning landed in the Sea of Japan, inside that country’s exclusive economic zone. The launch marks the third by North Korea in as many weeks and indicates the determination of Kim Jong Un to continuing developing North Korean technical capabilities. Following the missile launch, the United States and South Korea flew bombers near the North Korean border in a joint drill, the second such drill this month. The Journal has more.

Philippine forces are struggling to regain control of the southern Philippine city of Marawi from a militant Islamist group loyal to ISIS that took over much of the city last week, the Times reports. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte declared martial law in the region last week after fighting erupted in response to a police effort to arrest the group’s ISIS-approved leader.

ICYMI: This Long Weekend, on Lawfare

Jordan Brunner, Quinta Jurecic, and Yishai Schwartz summarized the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit’s decision in Wikimedia’s challenge to the NSA’s “mass surveillance” program.

Jordan Brunner and Amira Mikhail summarized the Fourth Circuit’s opinion in IRAP v. Trump, upholding a nationwide preliminary injunction against the administration’s revised travel ban.

Peter Margulies argued that the Fourth Circuit’s “cherry-picking” of pre- and post-election statements by Donald Trump “will not produce clear guidance on the contours of the Establishment Clause in foreign policy.”

Bobby Chesney and Steve Vladeck posted the latest episode of the National Security Law Podcast, in which the two discuss the Wikimedia and IRAP opinions.

Josh Blackman analyzed the Fourth Circuit’s IRAP opinion in the first two of a four-part series. Part I analyzed the majority opinion, focusing especially on the court’s reliance on pre- and post-inauguration statements by the President and his associates. Part II analyzed the Fourth Circuit’s use of Supreme Court precedents on standing, reviewability of immigration decisions, and the Establishment Clause.

Aditya Bamzai argued that the special counsel regulations do not permit delegating a counterintelligence investigation to a special counsel, and thus that Rosenstein’s delegation to Robert Mueller exceeds the limits of the regulations.

Jared Dummitt and Eliot Kim reported on an eventful week in the South China Sea, in which the Trump Administration appeared to conduct its first Freedom of Navigation Exercises.

Susan Hennessey highlighted a Washington Post report that Jared Kushner sought a secret communications channel with the Kremlin.

Quinta Jurecic posted the latest episode of the Lawfare Podcast, in which Benjamin Wittes discussed the role of the White House Counsel with Bob Bauer, former White House Counsel for Barack Obama.

In last week’s Foreign Policy Essay, Dina Esfandiary and Ariane Tabatabai assessed the instability in the Middle East caused by the Iran-Saudi rivalry and associated proxy conflicts and argued that dialogue now is both possible and necessary.

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