Today's Headlines and Commentary

Today's Headlines and Commentary

By William Ford
Monday, February 12, 2018, 4:18 PM

Marc Short, the president’s legislative affairs director, said on Monday that the White House looks forward to releasing the Democratic rebuttal to the Nunes memo after Democrats work with the FBI to eliminate the portions of the memo that expose classified intelligence sources and methods, Politico reports. Short noted that the intelligence community alerted the White House to “sources and methods in the democratic memo that they do not want revealed.” Short added that he believed Democrats put those sources and methods in the memo intentionally, knowing the White House would refuse to release it. The Democratic memo claims to rebut, point by point, what it characterizes as an inaccurate and misleading GOP memo on alleged government surveillance abuses.

In an interview aboard Air Force Two, Vice President Mike Pence said that the Trump administration is willing to speak with Kim Jong Un’s regime, the Washington Post reports. While the administration is unwilling to lift sanctions until North Korea “takes clear steps toward denuclearization,” Pence admitted for the first time that the White House would sit with the North Koreans as this pressure continues. The vice president called this strategy “maximum pressure and engagement at the same time.” This new stance marks an important change in U.S. policy, which formerly refused to consider direct engagement with the regime until Pyongyang made serious concessions.

The Iranian drone that Israel shot down over the weekend seems to have been developed from American technology that Iran obtained from a U.S. drone it captured in 2011, the Post reports. Private experts and Israeli military and security officials said the Iranian aircraft appears to be a copy of the CIA-operated RQ-170 Sentinel spy drone. The drone traveled between three and four miles into Israeli airspace Saturday morning before an Israeli attack helicopter destroyed it. The director-general of Israel’s intelligence ministry noted that the incursion was not an attack but rather an attempt by Iran to test the country’s “limits and rules.” The low altitude at which the drone flew indicates that it sought to evade detection by radar and test Israeli air defenses. Iran appears to have a dozen copies of the triangular-shaped drone, which it calls the “Saeqeh”(in English, “Thunderbolt”). Tensions continue to escalate between Iran and Israel following the weekend clash, the Wall Street Journal adds. In response to the Saeqeh’s incursion into Israeli airspace, Israel launched airstrikes against Syrian military positions, and the Syrian military downed an Israeli F-16 fighter. This loss marked the first in thirty years of an Israeli fighter jet, and Israel reacted by undertaking more extensive airstrikes on Syrian and Iranian military positions. In a statement on Sunday, the United States stood by Israel’s right to defend itself against the forces arrayed against it in southern Syria.

On Monday, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called on the Egyptian government to hold “free and transparent presidential elections next month,” the Post reports. Tillerson’s request comes on the heels of a tense political period in Egypt, during which several potential challengers to Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi were either imprisoned or discouraged from opposing him in a bid for the presidency. The only remaining candidate challenging Sissi is a relatively unknown supporter of his, leaving Sissi to run essentially unopposed. Despite concerns about political repression and human rights violations committed by the government, Tillerson declared that the U.S. will remain “steadfast” in its support for Egypt’s fight against terrorism.

The secretary of state’s arrival in Egypt marks the first stop in a trip through the Middle East that will also bring him to Kuwait, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, the Post reports. In Kuwait, Tillerson will take part in a conference considering how best to rebuild Iraq’s devastated infrastructure. In Jordan, the secretary will discuss the security, defense and economic issues facing a kingdom unhappy with the administration’s decision to move the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. While in Beirut, Tillerson will likely press Lebanese officials to contain Hezbollah; in Ankara, the secretary will address growing tensions between the U.S. and its NATO ally and work to find common ground.

President Trump has requested $716 billion in defense spending for 2019, the Washington Post reports. This marked jump in military spending would amount to a 17 percent increase to the Defense Department’s budget from 2017 and would provide the Pentagon with all the money it has requested in recent years. The administration’s proposal accelerates recent expansions to personnel levels at the Defense Department, allowing it to add to its ranks an additional 16,400 troops. The proposal also includes $24 billion for enhancing America’s nuclear program.

President Trump announced on Monday that the U.S. will stop expanding its nuclear arsenal if other countries stop first, Politico reports. The president explicitly said “if they stop, we’ll stop,” though the Trump stopped short of naming the countries to which he was referring. The president added that he hopes never to use the weapons the military is developing. Whether the U.S. reduces its stockpile, he qualified, depends entirely on the actions of other countries.

President Trump plans to nominate Adm. Harry Harris Jr., the commander of the U.S. Pacific Command, to be the next U.S. ambassador to Australia, the New York Times reports. Harris has been a stalwart critic of China’s military actions in the South China Sea, characterizing the country’s policy of building bases on the Spratly Islands as “provocative and expansionist.” Harris has proposed patrolling the South China Sea in “freedom of navigation operations” but warns that North Korea remains the most significant threat to the region. A frequent visitor to Australia through his work at Pacific Command, Harris holds that the U.S.-Australian alliance “anchors peace and stability in the region.” His confirmation is expected to enjoy strong support in the Senate.

ICYMI: This Weekend on Lawfare

Responding to articles on Lawfare discussing the role that the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) might play in clearing up the controversy of the Nunes memo, Stewart Baker noted that the FISC has, in the past, invoked its right to punish inadequate or misleading FISA applications. 

Matthew Kahn posted the Lawfare Podcast, a recording of David Frum’s Feb. 7 conversation with Jonathan Rauch, Elaine Kamarck, and Benjamin Wittes about his new book “Trumpocracy: The Corruption of the American Public.”

Douglas Ollivant delineated the problems caused by corruption in Iraq and explained how to reduce corruption.

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