The Soufan Group Morning Brief


President-elect Donald Trump plans to nominate retired Marine Gen. John Kelly to lead the Department of Homeland Security. Kelly, a widely respected 66-year-old retired four-star Marine general whose son was killed in combat in Afghanistan, stepped down in February as commander of the U.S. Southern Command, where he oversaw the prison at Guantanamo. While there, Kelly at times clashed with the Obama administration over its plan to close the prison.
If confirmed, Kelly would be tasked with protecting U.S. borders and overseeing immigration policies, two centerpieces of Trump’s presidential campaign. DHS is the third-largest Cabinet department, with more than 240,000 employees whose jobs include fighting terrorism, protecting the president and enforcing immigration laws. Reuters, Washington Post, Miami Herald, New York Times, Guardian
Third general for Trump’s team: Kelly is the third retired general that Trump has tapped since his election, having asked another retired Marine general, James Mattis, to be secretary of defense, and Army Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn to be national security adviser. He continues to have conversations with other retired military officials, including David Petraeus and James Stavridis, about other positions. That has intensified worries among some members of Congress and national security experts that the new administration’s policies may be shaped disproportionately by military commanders. Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, NPR
Defense attorneys for the accused 9/11 conspirators at Guantanamo urged a military judge on Wednesday to preserve a copy of the 9/11 Senate Torture Report before President-elect Donald Trump takes office. “You don’t have to read it,” defense attorney Jay Connell told the judge, Army Col. James L. Pohl, asking him to simply safeguard it. Connell never once mentioned Trump’s name but noted that the incoming administration has been “promising waterboarding or worse and there are many reasons to believe it is hostile to preservation of the report.” Miami Herald
ISIS’s march across Iraq and Syria came as a surprise to U.S. intelligence, President Obama tells CNN’s Fareed Zakaria in a new interview. “The ability of ISIL to not just mass inside of Syria, but then to initiate major land offensives that took Mosul, for example, that was not on my intelligence radar screen,” Obama told Zakaria in “The Legacy of Barack Obama,” which aired Wednesday. Avoiding a large scale ground conflict in Syria “is the smartest decision from a menu of bad options that were available to us,” Obama said. CNN
CIA torture architect defends program: James Mitchell, the co-architect of the CIA torture program, defended his endorsement of harsh interrogation techniques during a rare public appearance this week at the American Enterprise Institute. Mitchell also suggested that we need a renewed “civil debate” about the utility of such practices. BuzzFeed
Trump says U.S. intel conclusion about Russian hacking is ‘politically motivated’: President-elect Donald Trump told Time magazine that he believes that the conclusion by U.S. intelligence agencies that Russian state-sponsored hackers were behind the theft and release of internal emails from the Clinton campaign the DNC was motivated by politics. When Time asked Trump if the conclusions reached by U.S. intelligence professionals who analyzed the hacks were “politically driven,” Trump replied, “I think so.” Huffington Post
Surveillance case: The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals will today hear oral arguments in Wikimedia v. NSA, which challenges the legality of “Upstream” surveillance. Upstream surveillance involves the NSA’s bulk searching of Americans’ international internet communications with the assistance of companies like AT&T and Verizon. BuzzFeed
In-flight surveillance: A report in Le Monde based on documents leaked by Edward Snowden suggests that agents at the NSA and at the UK’s GCHQ  are able to identify and intercept individuals’ phones on most commercial flights in “near real time” via a triangulation process using passenger lists, satellites, and ground detectors. Le Monde, Telegraph

Syrian government forces swept through the Old City of Aleppo on Wednesday, as rebel forces debated when to withdraw from their stronghold now that they are facing near-certain defeat. Although a government victory in Aleppo would not end the war, it would give Assad undisputed power in Syria’s major cities. For the rebels, losing Aleppo would be a powerful blow to their legitimacy as a military force. Washington Post, Los Angeles Times
Wall Street Journal: Syrian Rebels Pin Hopes on Trump
ISIS hostage appears in video: British journalist John Cantlie appears in a new ISIS video making coerced statements from the rubble of besieged Mosul at the site of an apparent coalition airstrike. ABC News
Taliban-Russia ties: Deepening ties between Russia and Taliban militants are reportedly worrying Afghan and U.S. officials. Authorities in Moscow have denied that they provide aid to the Taliban, and say that their limited contacts are focused on bringing the militants to the negotiating table with Kabul. Reuters

China pushes back against Flynn assertions: A spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry pushed back on Wednesday against assertions made by Trump’s choice for national security advisor, Michael Flynn, that China was allied with “radical Islamists.” The assertion comes from a book Flynn wrote this year with Michael Ledeen, in which they assert that it’s “no surprise that we are facing an alliance between radical Islamists and regimes in Havana, Pyongyang, Moscow and Beijing.” The Chinese spokesman said Wednesday: “I hope everyone who takes a responsible attitude and is devoted to safeguarding China-U.S. relations and boosting China-U.S. cooperation can base their opinions on facts when taking a position.” New York Times

Russian President Vladimir Putin writes in Italy’s La Stampa that it’s time for the U.S. and Europe to trust Moscow as a partner in confronting the world’s problems.
“There are perpetuating clichés about a number of imaginary threats in the West, including the infamous ‘threat’ of Russian military aggression,” Putin writes. “Another imaginary problem is the manufactured hysteria in the United States over supposed Russian interference in the 2016 presidential elections. It seems the United States faces real and urgent issues, from its enormous public debt to the soaring number of gun deaths and police shootings. But it is easier to distract attention by accusing Russian hackers and spies than to identify the root causes and find solutions to these issues. Let’s be honest: Does anyone truly believe that Russia could in any way influence American elections? The United States is a great power, not a banana republic.”
I worked at Flynn’s DIA and I’m afraid he’ll put on the road to war with Iran: “As a former Army intelligence soldier and then analyst for the Defense Intelligence Agency, I believe that Lieutenant General Michael Flynn, the president-elect’s pick for national security advisor, presents a clear and present danger to our national security,” writes Joshua Manning in Foreign Policy. “In choosing Flynn as his national security advisor, the president-elect has elevated a man who leans toward conspiracy theories as justification for action. Flynn wants to take assertive action in the Muslim world and I think he will push for that no matter what the facts may be.”
Did the Pentagon really bury $125 billion in waste? “On closer inspection, the bombshell appears to be a dud,” writes Tobin Harshaw in “After taking time to do the math and parse the timeline, it seems like there really is a lot less here than meets the eye.”
Trump can’t fight ISIS without wading into Syrian war: “In the coming months, Islamic State will find new ways to endure an American-orchestrated offensive on Raqqa,” writes Mohamad Bazzi in “It will try to take advantage of the change in U.S. administration. And once he’s in office, Trump will discover that fighting and containing Islamic State inevitably means wading into Syria’s complicated war.”

For cutting-edge analysis of the geopolitical events shaping global affairs, read today’s TSG IntelBrief: The GCC’s Uncertainty Over Trump

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