Today's Headlines and Commentary

Today's Headlines and Commentary

By Alex Potcovaru
Wednesday, July 12, 2017, 4:12 PM

The Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing today on the nomination of Christopher Wray to serve as the next FBI Director, the Times reports. Wray answered questions about the impartiality of the position, particularly after Donald Trump’s decision to fire previous FBI Director James Comey, and said that no one had asked him to pledge loyalty to the White House. He was also asked about the CIA torture program. He testified that as Principal Associate Deputy Attorney General, he did not see or sign off on a controversial 2002 memo from the Office of Legal Counsel authorizing the enhanced interrogation program. Also of note, Wray said that Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation is not a “witch hunt.” Wray is a former Justice Department attorney and served as the head of the DOJ’s criminal division from 2003 to 2005. He is currently a partner at King & Spalding. The Washington Post has a thorough profile of Wray’s career.

Donald Trump broke his silence on Twitter this morning regarding Donald Trump Jr.’s meeting with a Kremlin-linked lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya to receive damaging information on Hillary Clinton, the Times reports. Following his son’s appearance on “Hannity," President Trump tweeted that Trump Jr. was “open, transparent and innocent.” President Trump had not made any public statements for several days after the meeting was revealed. He criticized the use of anonymous sources in reporting, although the Times notes that in this case Trump Jr. tweeted the emails in question himself. Former campaign chairman Paul Manafort previously mentioned the meeting to congressional investigators, the Times reports. Reuters says that Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-IA) will call Manafort to testify before the committee.

Veselnitskaya was viewed as a Moscow insider who took on cases important to the government and to a powerful business magnate with whom she forged a relationship, the Times reports in a profile of the attorney. Since the initial reporting on her meeting with Donald Trump, Jr., some characterized Veselnitskaya as a single-issue advocate primarily focused on the lifting of Magnitsky Act sanctions rather than as a well-connected lawyer with government connections.

A group monitoring the Syrian civil war claims that ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has died, but the U.S. has been unable to confirm the information, according to the Post. The activist group uses sources on the ground in Syria for its reports. If true, it would be another in a string of recent victories over ISIS, including the capture of Mosul. However, rumors of al-Baghdadi’s death have circled before, only to later be left unproven or proven false.

The Commander of U.S. Air Combat Command Gen. James M. Holmes said yesterday that a small mistake by a pilot could easily result in unintended escalation in Syria, Defense One reports. He made the statement at an Air Force Association event. Holmes said that the pilots have performed well, but that the growing complexity of the conflict and Russian power in the region has increased the chance of error.

The U.S.-led coalition in Iraq called a recent Amnesty International report alleging international law violations in the fight to retake Mosul from ISIS “irresponsible,” the AP reports. Labelling the fighting a “civilian catastrophe” following reports of over 5,805 civilians killed, the group accused the coalition of unlawful attacks, including the use of indiscriminate weapons. Gen. Stephen T. Townsend called the coalition bombing “the most precise campaign in the history of warfare.” The Iraqi prime minister claimed total victory in the city on Monday, but some fighting continued Tuesday.

Before it began, the first military commission hearing on U.S. soil was delayed as defense attorneys disagreed over who could represent the defendant, Ibrahim al Qosi, the Miami Herald reports. Army Col. James L. Pohl, the presiding judge, called the session to determine whether al Qosi qualifies as an unprivileged enemy belligerent. The appeals court for military commissions wanted the information before determining whether it would overturn al Qosi’s 2010 guilty plea to providing material support for terror. Judge Pohl thought that the appellate court believed that al Qosi’s original defense attorney Suzanne Lachelier should represent him, but Lachelier has claimed a conflict of interest. New attorneys were assigned and ready to represent al Qosi, but Pohl stopped the hearing and asked the review panel for guidance.

The State Department has approved a potential $3.9 billion arms sale to Romania, according to a press release from the Defense Security Cooperation Agency. reports. The deal would provide seven Patriot air and missile defense systems. The country is a NATO member with close proximity to Russia and already has a U.S. missile defense system. Russia has spoken out against the presence of missile systems in Eastern Europe.

The U.S. should create a new cabinet-level department on cybersecurity that would consolidate the responsibility for addressing the problem into one organization, argues an opinion in The Wall Street Journal. The authors say that the U.S. is not prepared for a catastrophic cyberattack in part due to the distribution of cybersecurity responsibilities among eleven different federal agencies. The creation of a dedicated department would present significant risks and challenges, but the authors say that lessons learned from the creation of the Department of Homeland Security fifteen years ago, like the need to guard against fragmented congressional oversight, would help guide the effort.

Sanctions against Russia remain stalled in the House after Democrats expressed concerns over a provision that would give Republicans the sole ability to bring resolutions on Trump’s sanction policy to a vote, Politico reports. Although passed with near unanimous support in the Senate, the House has repeatedly stalled the bill with both parties accusing the other of causing the delay. The Trump-Russia relationship has placed some lawmakers in an awkward position of being “tough” on Russia but also restricting some of the President’s ability to lift sanctions in negotiations with the Kremlin. In an attempt to force the GOP’s hand, House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-MD) urged Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) to bring the bill to the floor today, or the Democrats would introduce the original Senate bill that does not restrict their power to bring a vote. The GOP has accused the Democrats of grandstanding on the issue.

Representatives of the U.S. and Russia will meet on Monday to discuss “so-called irritants” in the relationship, the Post reports. Undersecretary of State Thomas Shannon and Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov will attend the meeting. The discussion will likely focus on the return of two Russian compounds in the U.S. that the Obama administration seized in late December 2016 after it expelled 35 Russian diplomats. The U.S. refusal to return the sites has been a sticking point with the Kremlin, which implied it may expel U.S. diplomats and seize U.S. property in Russia in response.

ICYMI: Yesterday, on Lawfare

Benjamin Wittes, Jane Chong, and Quinta Jurecic examined the growing cracks in the carefully constructed narrative that no collusion occurred between the Trump campaign and Russia.

Duncan B. Hollis introduced his paper on how the U.S. has pursued cybernorms aimed at changing Chinese cyberspace behavior.

J. Dana Stuster posted the Middle East Ticker covering the Syrian ceasefire, rebuilding Mosul, Turkish rallies against authoritarianism, and the British High Court’s declaration that arms sales to Saudi Arabia for its fight against Yemen are legal.

Paul Rosenzweig argued that cyber cooperation with bad actors is never a good idea.

Scarlet Kim and Mailyn Fidler argued that the new U.K. surveillance framework does not adequately meet the standards set in U.S. Department of Justice legislation, possibly undermining an international push for reform to cross-border data requests.

Rosenzweig noted a recent Bloomberg Businessweek story that alleges cybersecurity firm Kaspersky has been working with Russian intelligence.

Bobby Chesney and Steve Vladeck posted the National Security Law Podcast.

Susan Hennessey and Wittes posted a video of suggested questions for this morning’s Senate Judiciary hearing on Christopher Wray’s nomination to serve as FBI Director and a link to their column about the nomination on the Lawfare@FP feed.

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