Today's Headlines and Commentary

Today's Headlines and Commentary

By William Ford
Wednesday, March 21, 2018, 1:53 PM

Against the advice of his national security advisers, President Trump called Russian President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday to congratulate him on his victory in the country’s presidential election, the New York Times reports. On the phone, Trump did not discuss Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election or Russia’s recent attempted assassination of Sergei Skripal and his daughter on British soil. Rather, the president emphasized the “shared interests” between Moscow and Washington, among them North Korea and Ukraine. After the call, the president instructed reporters in the Oval Office that he and his Russian counterpart “will probably be meeting in the not-too-distant future.” The optimism of the president’s tone contrasted sharply with the administration’s recent statements on and actions against Russia, which included the imposition of new set of sanctions less than a week prior to Tuesday’s call.

FBI director Christopher Wray suggested in an interview with NBC News on Tuesday that the decision to remove former deputy director Andrew McCabe was not politically motivated, Politico reports. Wray emphasized that he remains committed to shielding the bureau from political influence and “doing things objectively and independently and by the book.” In the interview, Wray noted that he does not feel political pressure from the administration, adding that the president has never requested that he impede or otherwise take action in relation to the special counsel investigation.

Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen informed the Senate intelligence committee on Wednesday that only 20 of 150 state and local election officials have the security clearances they need to receive election security intelligence, Axios reports. Officials require this clearance to receive crucial information from the department on how best to decrease election infrastructure vulnerabilities ahead of Russian interference in the upcoming congressional midterm elections. Nielsen said that the department will sponsor a maximum of three officials per state to receive the sensitive clearance, and said her department will work through the interagency process to bypass the security clearance process and share urgent intelligence with local officials if needed.

Israel admitted Wednesday that it bombed a suspected Syrian nuclear reactor in 2007, Reuters reports. The military made public previously classified footage of an airstrike destroying the Al-Kubar facility in eastern Syria. The military asserted that Syria constructed the facility with help from North Korea and that at the time of the bombing it was mere months away from activation. In a pointed message to Iran, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu noted that Israel remains committed to preventing its enemies from developing or attaining nuclear weapons.

According to rebel officials and a Hezbollah military media unit, Syrian rebels intend to evacuate Eastern Ghouta as part of an agreement brokered by the Russian Defence Ministry, Reuters reports. Starting Thursday, approximately 1,500 fighters and 6,000 of their family members will be transported to the rebel-held Idlib province. Those who wish to remain in Ghouta will receive a government pardon. The Syrian regime’s offensive to retake Ghouta, which began last month, has claimed more than 1,500 lives and rendered the city unlivable. President Bashar al-Assad claims that the rebels in the city constitute a terrorist threat that the regime must eradicate.

Cambridge Analytica, the data firm that harvested the personal information of 50 million Facebook users without the users’ knowledge in support of the Trump campaign, also played a role in Kenya’s presidential election, the Times reports. Senior officials at the firm said it played a crucial role in the 2013 and 2017 campaigns to elect Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta. In an undercover video with the U.K.’s Channel 4 News, a senior executive at the firm said that the firm rebranded Kenyatta’s political party twice, wrote his speeches, designed his political platform, and conducted two surveys of 50,000 Kenyans to gauge their hopes and fears. Kenyatta won reelection in 2017 after two contentious votes. The Kenyan Supreme Court disqualified the first vote, citing “irregularities,” and Kenyatta’s opposition, Raila Odinga, withdrew from the second vote, claiming it to be “unfair.” After contesting the results of the election, Odinga acknowledged his loss to Kenyatta last month, ending a period of significant tension.

ICYMI: Yesterday on Lawfare

Alina Polyakova argued that an all-out Russian assault on critical Western infrastructure appears to be inevitable.

J. Dana Stuster posted this week’s Middle East Ticker, which discussed Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman’s trip to the U.S., the future of the Iran deal after the firing of Rex Tillerson, Turkey’s capture of Afrin, and the situation in Eastern Ghouta.

Julian Ku argued that the Taiwan Travel Act should be considered legally binding legislation that Congress can enforce through oversight.

Matthew Kahn announced the newest essay published in Lawfare’s Research Paper Series: Matthew Levitt’s “In Search of Nuance in the Debate over Hezbollah’s Criminal Enterprise and the U.S. Response.”

Russell Spivak summarized the three recent filings submitted by Guantanamo detainee Khalid Ahmed Qassim on his habeas claim.

Kahn posted the Senate intelligence committee’s report on election security.

Robert Chesney explored whether it is a crime to offer communication services designed to prevent and protect against government access.

Andrew Keane Woods summarized the Cambridge Analytica-Facebook snafu and discussed its legal implications.

Scott Anderson and Molly Reynolds argued that opponents of U.S. support for the Saudi-led campaign in Yemen should not discount the political impact the failed Senate Yemen resolution might still have.

Kahn posted the Lawfare Podcast, a conversation between Alina Polyakova and Liza Osetinskaya on journalistic freedom under Russian President Vladimir Putin.

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