The Soufan Group Morning Brief


In a testy hour-long press conference on Wednesday, President-elect Donald Trump appeared to admit that he believed Russia was behind election-related hacking, though he later said it could have been “others also.” But he spent more time excoriating the intelligence community for “leaking” a dossier of unverified reports about whether Moscow has compromising information on him, and blasted CNN as a “fake news” outlet for reporting on the existence of the dossier. Trump also reiterated his belief — first expressed in a tweet earlier Wednesday morning — that intelligence officials were behaving as though they were in “Nazi Germany” with what he termed “disgraceful” leaks to the media. The Anti-Defamation League later asked Trump to apologize for trivializing the Holocaust. Washington Post, New York Times

Several reports have identified the former British intelligence agent who compiled the dossier as Christopher Steele, now the director of a private security-and-investigations firm in London. Steele is said to be in hiding, fearing for his safety. Wall Street Journal, BBC News
New York Times: How a Sensational, Unverified Dossier Became a Crisis for Trump
The Atlantic: The Biggest Questions Raised by the Trump Dossier
Washington Post: FBI, CIA, DNI, NSA All Agreed: Tell Trump About Explosive Claims
New York Times: Russia’s Sexual Blackmail Didn’t Die with the Soviets
Former Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson, Trump’s nominee for secretary of state, faced a barrage of hostile questions from Republicans and Democrats alike about his position on Russia during his day-long confirmation hearing on Wednesday. Tillerson did appear to paint Russia as a greater threat than Trump has, calling it a “danger” in his testimony, but he came under fire for insufficient hawkishness from both sides of the aisle.

“Is Vladimir Putin a war criminal?” asked Florida Republican Marco Rubio, who ran against Trump for the GOP nomination last year, in an early and testy exchange. “I would not use that term,” Tillerson replied. Rubio pressed him, detailing Putin’s directing the Russian military to bomb civilian targets in the Syrian city of Aleppo. When Tillerson replied he would need to review classified information before reaching a conclusion, Rubio said “it should not be hard to say that Vladimir Putin’s military conducted war crimes in Aleppo.” He declared it “discouraging” that Tillerson was unable to do so. Boston Globe, Time, Washington Post

Rep. Michael Pompeo, Trump’s nominee to lead the CIA, will face a Senate panel today amid a growing standoff between Trump and the intelligence community over Russian hacking. Though he is a respected, four-time Republican congressman from Kansas, Pompeo is now expected to be grilled over whether the spy agency can remain independent under a Trump presidency. Gen. James Mattis, nominee to lead the Pentagon, is also expected to walk a fine line between speaking his mind on U.S. national security issues and his future boss’s positions when he appears today before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Politico, Washington Post, New York Times, Wall Street Journal

Mattis faces another hurdle beyond his confirmation hearing, however: a waiver exempting him from the seven-year waiting period for retired military officers to serve as defense secretary. House Democrats are now threatening to withhold that waiver, after Trump transition officials blocked Mattis from testifying before the House Armed Services Committee later on Thursday. Politico, CNN

KSM letter to Obama: An Army judge has ordered Guantanamo to send a 2014 letter from Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged 9/11 mastermind, to Barack Obama by Friday, a week before the commander in chief leaves office. Judge James Pohl found no “legal basis for continued sealing of the letter’s contents,” according to attorneys who read the Jan. 6 ruling. Miami Herald

Guantanamo judge and torture report: Guantanamo’s Judge Pohl has also reportedly ordered the Defense Department to preserve its copy of the CIA ‘torture report.’ But the judge’s order leaves undecided the question of whether attorneys for detainees at the prison will be allowed to read it. Miami Herald

ISIS recruiter trial: Attorneys for Ahmed Mohammed el-Gammal — who is on trial for allegedly recruiting for ISIS and helping Baruch College student Samy Mohammed el-Goarany reach ISIS in Syria in early 2015 -- say el-Gammal’s smoking habit proves that he had vices that don’t align with the terror organization, which prohibits smoking. New York Daily News

New York man’s terror sentence: A New York man was sentenced to 13 years in prison this week for appearing on video when he was a teenager and pledging allegiance to al Qaeda and later attempting to fly to Yemen. Justin Kaliebe, now 22, had pleaded for leniency, telling the judge that he was a disillusioned and immature high school student at the time he plotted to join al Qaeda. He faced 30 years. SF Gate, Newsday

The Taliban released a video on Wednesday of two professors from the American University of Afghanistan who were abducted at gunpoint in Kabul in August, the first public confirmation by the insurgents that they are holding the two Westerners and that they remain alive. The 13-minute video, released months after an unsuccessful Navy SEAL raid in eastern Afghanistan to rescue the professors, shows Timothy Weeks, an Australian, and Kevin King, an American, pleading with their governments to cooperate with the Taliban for the release of insurgent prisoners in exchange for their freedom. New York Times
Washington Post: U.S. Military Says Battle with Taliban Killed 33 Civilians in November

Yemen: Australian government photographs of arms seized from a smuggling vessel off the coast of Yemen appear to show weapons manufactured in Iran, suggesting Tehran has had a hand in gunrunning to the Horn of Africa and Arabian Peninsula. New York Times

Morocco bans burqas: Morocco has reportedly banned the sale of burqas, citing vague security concerns. The government has not confirmed the ban, but local shops say they have received notifications from the Interior Ministry banning them from selling or manufacturing the full-body garment. New York Times

Spain dismisses terror case: A terrorism and hate crimes speech against two puppeteers in Spain that was widely seen as a bellwether for whether new anti-terrorism laws across Europe would threaten free speech has been dismissed by a Spanish judge. The judge called the evidence against the puppeteers, who were charged after staging a show that was deemed to glorify hatred, as insufficient. New York Times 
Trump: A modern Manchurian candidate? “There is only one way to get to the bottom of this tawdry affair” over whether Russia has compromising info on Trump, writes Max Boot in the New York Times. “Appoint a bipartisan, 9/11-style commission to investigate all of the allegations and issue a public report. The former C.I.A. directors Leon E. Panetta and Michael V. Hayden, among other possible choices, would provide instant credibility if they were appointed to lead such a panel. If Mr. Trump is genuinely innocent of any untoward connections with the Kremlin, wouldn’t he want a full investigation to clear his name? That he so adamantly opposes any such inquiry speaks volumes.”

A good relationship with Russia shouldn’t be Trump’s priority: “No sensible person wants a state of hostility with a nuclear superpower,” writes Doyle McManus in the Los Angeles Times. “But Trump tweeted his foreign policy doctrine with an essential piece missing. The goal of American foreign policy is to protect U.S. interests, not to achieve ‘a good relationship’ with any particular country – much less a country as troubling in its conduct as Vladimir Putin’s Russia.”

U.S. spies see a world of Trumps ahead: “Rising need, fewer resources, fewer jobs—and more campaigns like Donald Trump’s. That’s the world ahead, according to America’s intelligence agencies,” writes Kimberly Dozier in the Daily Beast. “Analysts from U.S. spy services predict a darker world to come over the next five years, with rising populations, falling incomes, and ever more technology to spread anger at the speed of a tweet—all trends that helped catapult Trump to victory—only set to increase.”

Assad has won in Syria. But Syria hardly exists: “The Syrian government may have a representative to the United Nations, have embassies in some countries, stamp passports and print currency, but it is hardly a state,” write David Lesch and James Gelvin in the New York Times. “Mr. Assad’s control, power and legitimacy have been severely circumscribed, whether he and his supporters know it or not. He will have to depend on continuing large-scale assistance from outside if he wants to restore even a portion of what Syria was.”
For cutting-edge analysis of the geopolitical events shaping global affairs, read today’s TSG IntelBrief: Iran's Naval Provocations Continue

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