Today's Headlines and Commentary

Today's Headlines and Commentary

By William Ford
Wednesday, April 4, 2018, 4:36 PM

Special Counsel Robert Mueller told President Trump’s lawyers that the president is a subject, but not currently a criminal target, of Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, the Washington Post reported Tuesday evening. The revelation came in the course of private negotiations over a possible interview between the special counsel and the president. Mueller also instructed Trump’s lawyers that he is preparing a report about the president’s possible obstruction of justice. Tuesday night, Quinta Jurecic, Orin Kerr, Paul Rosenzweig and Benjamin Wittes discussed what the story means in a special edition of the Lawfare Podcast.

In a blog post Wednesday afternoon, Facebook announced that third-party applications have collected and shared the personal data of most of the site’s two billion users without their knowledge or explicit permission, the Washington Post reports. The announcement also corrected earlier estimates of the scope of the Cambridge Analytica data breach. Facebook’s initial estimate suggested that the breach compromised the personal data of approximately 50 million Facebook users. A broader probe undertaken by the company in response to the Cambridge Analytica breach found instead that the breach compromised the data of as many as 87 million Facebook users. The same probe discovered that the problem of third-party harvesting of personal data extends far beyond Cambridge Analytica. Facebook noted that “given the scale and sophistication of the activity we’ve seen, we believe most of the people on Facebook could have had their public profile scraped.” Facebook will notify its users on April 9 as to whether Cambridge Analytica harvested their personal data, the New York Times adds. Mark Zuckerberg, the head of Facebook, will testify before the House commerce committee on the use and protection of Facebook users’ data on April 11.

The White House announced Wednesday that the U.S. will continue fighting the Islamic State in Syria, walking back President Trump’s statement during a press conference yesterday indicating that the administration hoped to bring American forces home very soon, the Times reports. The announcement signaled a victory for the country’s top military commanders in their ongoing struggle to convince the president that maintaining U.S. presence in Syria remains crucial for the defeat of the Islamic State. Military and civilian officials additionally contend that maintaining America’s commitment to sending $200 million in recovery aid to Syria will play a crucial role in securing long-term victory over the Islamic State. In Ankara on Wednesday, Iran, Russia and Turkey reiterated their joint commitment to bringing peace and stability back to Syria expediently, Reuters adds.

Dan Coats, the director of national intelligence, stated Wednesday that he intends to “declassify as much as possible” the record of Gina Haspel, the president’s nominee for CIA director, Politico reports. Haspel worked extensively with the agency’s enhanced interrogation program under the Bush administration and supervised a secret CIA prison in Thailand. Her involvement in the controversial torture program has generated serious backlash from some senators. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) has committed himself to preventing her confirmation. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) plans to question Haspel thoroughly about her role in the CIA’s torture program, specifically her involvement in the agency’s destruction of video recordings of two detainee interrogations believed to be particularly brutal. Coats contends that Haspel’s role in the controversial interrogation program has “been mischaracterized.” He noted that “every effort will be made to explain fully what her role was.”

During his final public remarks as national security adviser, Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster condemned Russia for its increasing bellicosity and decried the Trump administration’s insufficient response, the Washington Post reports. McMaster described Russian aggression as a form of “hybrid warfare” that “combines political, economic, informational and cyber-assaults against sovereign nations.” Speaking in the presence of the leaders of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, the national security adviser praised these countries’ efforts to counter Russian aggression and denounced states that “have looked the other way in the face of [Russia’s] threats.” McMaster’s unequivocal language stands in stark contrast to President Trump’s equivocations on Russia earlier that day. “Ideally we want to get along with Russia,” said Trump. “Getting along with Russia is a good thing, not a bad thing. Maybe we will, maybe we won’t.”

The Baltic Fleet of the Russian navy began testing its missiles in the Baltic Sea on Wednesday, Reuters reports. The military exercises—announced Monday by the Russian defense ministry—nevertheless alarmed Latvia, a NATO member, which closed down parts of Baltic commercial airspace in response. The Latvian prime minister described the military exercises as a clear “demonstration of force” and expressed frustration that the exercises could take place so close to his country. NATO officials worry that if any accident involving a downed civilian ship or plane occurred during Russia’s Baltic exercises, it might spark a broader conflict.

The Department of Homeland Security issued a letter on Tuesday alerting D.C. residents to the unauthorized use cellphone surveillance devices in the city, the Post reports. The department admitted in the letter that it has yet to determine the location of the cell-site simulators, often called a “StringRay” after a common brand name, or who is using them. The discovery prompted fears that foreign adversaries may be using the technology to spy on Americans. While all cell-site simulators can identify the location of a cellphone’s user, some versions of the technology can eavesdrop on users’ calls themselves or install malware. Federal and local law enforcement in the U.S. use the devices pursuant to court orders.

The British military laboratory tasked with identifying the nerve agent used in the attempted assassination of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter has not determined whether the poison came from Russia, the Times reports. Nevertheless, the chief executive of the U.K.’s Defense Science and Technology Laboratory confirmed that the poison was Novichok, a chemical created by the Russian military, or of the same chemical family as Novichok. He characterized the chemical as a military-grade nerve agent.

ICYMI: Yesterday on Lawfare

Stephanie Leutert interviewed Natalia Mendoza, an assistant professor of sociology and anthropology at Fordham University, on drug trafficking and migrant smuggling across the U.S.-Mexico border.

Stewart Baker shared the Cyberlaw Podcast, which consisted of a news roundup.

J. Dana Stuster posted this week’s Middle East Ticker, which examined President Trump’s desire to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria, the killing of 15 Palestinians during a protest at the Gaza border, and Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi’s reelection to the presidency.

David Kris and Nate Jones argued that the combination of Trump and John Bolton, the president’s new pick for national security adviser, will make for a volatile mix of ability, ideology, and temperament.

Ernesto Sanchez reviewed Ronen Bergman’s “Rise and Kill First: The Secret History of Israel’s Targeted Assassinations.”

Megan Reiss and Paul Rosenzweig offered three cybersecurity lessons from the ransomware attack that struck Atlanta on March 22.

Matthew Kahn shared the Lawfare Podcast, a conversation between Robert Chesney, Matt Tait, and Steve Vladeck on war, law, and cyberspace.

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

Quinta Jurecic argued that the lenient sentencing of Alex van der Zwaan and the absence of any indication that he continues to cooperate with the special counsel suggests that the sentencing constitutes an odd tangent for the investigation, not a major piece of the larger L’Affaire Russe puzzle.

Matthew Kahn posted a special twilight edition of the Lawfare Podcast on the Washington Post’s story.

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