Today's Headlines and Commentary

Today's Headlines and Commentary

By William Ford
Thursday, March 15, 2018, 1:12 PM

President Trump imposed sanctions on five Russian organizations and 19 individuals in response to Moscow’s interference in the 2016 presidential election and separate “malicious” cyberattacks, including the NotPetya attack, the New York Times reports. The organizations and individuals sanctioned include some of the same Russian entities and nationals identified in a recent indictment from Special Counsel Robert Mueller. Among the organizations that the sanctions target are the FSB, the successor to the Soviet-era KGB, and the GRU, Russian military intelligence. The sanctions block the identified individuals from traveling to the U.S., freeze the organizations’ and individuals’ American assets, and prohibit U.S. businesses from working with them. President Trump issued the sanctions alongside the administration’s joint statement with Britain, France and Germany condemning Russia’s unlawful attempted assassination of Sergei Skripal and his daughter with a banned nerve agent, the Wall Street Journal reports. The concurrent announcement of sanctions and condemnation of the attempted assassination mark the Trump administration’s strongest response yet to Russian election interference and cyberattacks.

The FBI’s Office of Professional Responsibility recommended the dismissal of former deputy director Andrew McCabe, alleging that McCabe approved the disclosure of sensitive information to a reporter and misled investigators when questioned about the disclosure, the Washington Post reports. The recommendation forces Attorney General Jeff Sessions to decide whether to fire the former deputy director a mere three days before the bureau expects him to retire. If Sessions fires McCabe before Sunday, McCabe will lose access to his full benefits. The disciplinary review, taking place at the most senior levels of the Justice Department, is ongoing. Department officials have not yet decided what disciplinary action McCabe will face.

Speaking before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Adm. Harry Harris, the commander of U.S. Pacific Command, said that the U.S. has no “bloody nose” preventive strategy for North Korea, Reuters reports. He emphasized that such a tactic “is not contemplated,” adding that if the U.S. decides to use force in the volatile region, it must “be ready to do the whole thing.”

Defense Secretary James Mattis pressured lawmakers to reject a bill that would end American support for Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen, the Journal reports. The secretary authored a personal letter to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) in which he argued that cutting U.S. support for Saudi Arabia’s efforts would hurt American interests in the Middle East, undermine Washington’s relationship with Riyadh, and increase the possibility of a regional conflict with Iran. Mattis hopes to halt the bill before it reaches the floor of the Senate and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman arrives in Washington. The U.S. provides Saudi Arabia with aerial refueling of its fighter aircraft and sends the kingdom precision-guided weapons. Sens. Mike Lee (R-Utah), Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) introduced the joint bill, which could come to a vote next week. Reuters reports that Saudi Arabia and the Houthis are in talks to end the war.

Salman said that Saudi Arabia will build nuclear weapons if its regional rival Iran does, Reuters reports. He qualified that his country does not want to develop nuclear weaponry. The crown prince’s comments come as Saudi Arabia seeks to develop its civilian nuclear program in an effort to diversify the country’s oil-dominated economy. China, France, Russia, South Korea and the U.S. are currently in contention for the contracts to build Saudi Arabia’s first pair of nuclear reactors.

In a filing made at a federal court in Washington on Wednesday evening, Paul Manafort’s attorneys sought to dismiss all five charges against their client, Politico reports. The attorneys contended that the charges against Manafort—money laundering and not registering as a foreign agent—are deeply flawed due to “defects in the appointment of Special Counsel Robert Mueller.” Per Manafort’s attorneys, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein ceded the special counsel too much power when appointing him last year, effectively granting him “carte blanche.” Federal prosecutors argue that Manafort’s attorneys have no legal basis to dispute or challenge internal regulations at the Justice Department, which delegate work among federal attorneys and establish the scope of their powers. 

A cyberattack against a petrochemical company in Saudi Arabia in August sought not just to seize or destroy company data or shut down the plant, but also to trigger an explosion, the Times reports. What prevented the explosion from occurring following the crash of the company’s technology was not the quality of its network defenses but rather a flaw in the hackers’ own coding. The U.S. government, its allies, and scholars fear that the hackers who undertook this cyberattack could replicate the assault at other industrial plants around the world that use the same American-engineered software compromised in this first onslaught. Investigators examining the August attack pointedly refuse to identify the company, organization, or government that launched the attack. Given the sophistication of the assault and the resources at the attackers’ disposal, however, cybersecurity experts conclude that the attack was abetted by a government.

ICYMI: Yesterday on Lawfare

Evelyn Douek explained the significance of the final report authored by the European Commission’s High Level Expert Group on Fake News and Online Disinformation and outlined what will come next.  

William Ford shared the livestreams of and prepared testimony from congressional hearings on space warfighting readiness, Somalia’s security status, and protecting cutting-edge technology and U.S. national security.

Jennifer Daskal and Peter Swire argued that the CLOUD Act would enhance privacy and civil liberties protections.

Scott Anderson and Allison Murphy provided an overview of the Trump administration’s “Report on the Legal and Policy Frameworks Guiding the United States’ use of Military Force for National Security Operations.”

Cameron Kerry suggested that the president’s nominations of Edward Felten and Jane Nitze to the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board offer reason for optimism.

Matthew Kahn shared the administration’s unclassified “Report on the Legal and Policy Frameworks Guiding the United States’ Use of Military Force for National Security Operations.”

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