The Soufan Group Morning Brief


The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday declined to review the Guantánamo war court conviction of a man who made recruiting videos for al Qaeda before the Sept. 11 attacks, upholding the conspiracy conviction of the only war criminal serving a life sentence at the terror prison.

The justices, without comment, rejected an appeal by Ali Hamza Ahmad Suliman al Bahlul, once the public relations manager for Osama bin Laden and creator of an al Qaeda recruitment video. Bahlul was seeking to overturn his conviction for conspiracy to commit war crimes, which is a U.S. offense but not a violation of international law. Bahlul’s lawyers say the Constitution requires that charge to be tried in a federal court.

Constitutional and international law experts and civil rights groups had joined Bahlul’s attorneys in urging the justices to take the case, saying it raised constitutional questions only the Supreme Court could answer.

University of Texas law professor Stephen Vladeck, who last week in a New York Times commentary urged the court to take the question of whether military commissions can try “purely domestic offenses,” declared the development a “big win” for the U.S. government.

It was the first time the Supreme Court had ruled in a Guantanamo case since 2008, when it said inmates have constitutional rights and may seek release in federal court. Justice Neil Gorsuch did not participate in the decision, for reasons that were not made clear. Miami Herald, Bloomberg, Washington Post

Muslim ban: The court also dropped one of two challenges it was considering to President Trump’s travel ban policy, declaring moot a lawsuit over Trump’s attempt to block issuance of visas to citizens of six majority-Muslim countries. Politico
Two CIA officers, wearing wigs and moustaches to conceal their identities, testified behind closed doors on Tuesday at the trial of the accused Benghazi attack ringleader, Ahmed Abu Khatallah. The men recounted a predawn militant attack on their secret base in Benghazi, in 2012, detailing the devastating mortar fire that killed two operatives and badly wounded two other Americans after the agency had dispatched a team in a desperate attempt to find the American ambassador.

Reporters were prohibited from entering the courtroom as the men testified, and images of the CIA officers were blacked out on video streamed into a room for journalists.

The CIA officers told jurors about how they flew in from Tripoli on the night of the assault on the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi only to eventually find themselves caught up in an intense firefight at a CIA annex nearby. “We came in and a few minutes later all hell broke loose,” recalled the CIA officer, an Arabic speaker who testified using the pseudonym Alexander Charles. “Maybe eight minutes since we arrived, they used mortars....You can feel the whole ground shaking....The building itself, the walls start falling apart, big blocks of cement falling.”

“Roy Edwards,” the second CIA operative who testified, who also had flown in with the rescue team from Tripoli, said of the mortars: “I knew we were taking direct hits and it was bad.” New York Times, Politico, Courthouse News, Reuters

American military officials at Guantanamo recently hardened their approach to hunger-striking prisoners, detainees have told their lawyers, and are allowing protesters to physically deteriorate beyond a point that previously prompted medical intervention to force-feed them.

For years, the military has forcibly fed chronic protesters when their weight dropped too much. Detainees who refuse to drink a nutritional supplement have been strapped into a restraint chair and had the supplement poured through their noses and into their stomachs via nasogastric tubes.

But around Sept. 19, guards stopped taking hunger-striking detainees to feeding stations, according to several lawyers for the detainees. New York Times

In a court filing Friday, Justice Department attorneys asserted that courts can't review President Trump’s compliance with record preservation laws. When it comes to laws pertaining to government record-keeping, judicial review would be inappropriate even if Trump deleted secret recordings with administration officials or even if his staff purged phone records because they expected to be subpoenaed in connection with various investigations, the filing argued.

The arguments come in response to a lawsuit from the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, D.C. In the lawsuit, the the watchdog group cited the Presidential Records Act and challenged the way Trump and staffers "seek to evade transparency and government accountability" by using encrypted communication apps to avoid preserving records. Hollywood Reporter

When Abdulrahman El Bahnasawy, then an 18-year-old from Canada, was arrested in May 2016, he was secretly detained in New York by federal authorities who hoped to arrest others in a supposed plot to detonate bombs in Times Square and in the subways. But his time in custody did not go exactly to plan: he was mistakenly transferred to the general population of a federal detention center in Manhattan, rather than held in isolation, and left there for a day -- long enough for money to be stolen from his commissary account. Several months later, he was given drugs by another inmate, leading to more complications.

The details, revealed in court papers filed late last week in federal court, raise questions about how jail officials handled someone the government viewed as an important terrorism defendant. New York Times
Globe and Mail: Canadian Who Admitted to U.S. Terror Plot Had Mental-Health Issues: Documents

Terror sentencing: The parents of two young Texas men who went to Syria to fight alongside ISIS are scheduled to be sentenced on Thursday, after pleading guilty in federal court in June to lying to the FBI about their sons’ activities. Dallas News

A South Korean lawmaker says North Korean hackers stole highly classified military documents that include U.S.-South Korean wartime “decapitation strike” plans against the North Korean leadership.

Rhee Cheol-hee, a member of South Korea's National Assembly, told CNN on Tuesday that he received information about the alleged hacking from the Defense Ministry. He said the documents stolen included the South Korea-US wartime operational plan. CNN, Associated Press
Bloomberg: North Korean Hack of U.S. War Plans Shows Off Cyber Skills

The number of airstrikes carried out by the U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan hit a seven-year high in September, according to the U.S. Air Forces Central Command. The U.S. and its NATO partners used 751 bombs against ISIS and Taliban targets during the period, according to a recently released report. This was a 50 percent jump from August. The highest one-month total for airstrikes was in October 2010, at 1,043. NBC News

A Wall Street Journal reporter has been convicted of producing “terrorist propaganda” in Turkey and sentenced to more than two years in prison, in a ruling that has drawn sharp criticism from press freedom advocates.

Ayla Albayrak, who was charged over an August 2015 article in the newspaper, was convicted in absentia, and was in in New York at the time the decision was made. She plans to appeal.

The charges against Albayrak, a dual citizen of Turkey and Finland, stemmed from an article that she wrote two years ago on Turkey’s ongoing war with Kurdish militants.

The sentence appeared certain to aggravate the ongoing dispute between Turkey and the United States. The feud burst into public view Sunday, when the U.S. Embassy in Ankara announced that it was suspending the issuing of nonimmigrant visas at its missions in Turkey. The move was taken in response to Turkey’s arrest this month of the consulate employee, Metin Topuz, on espionage charges. Washington Post, Guardian
Wall Street Journal editorial: An Outrageous Prosecution

In 2015, Israeli government hackers saw something suspicious in the computers of a Moscow-based cybersecurity firm: hacking tools that could only have come from the National Security Agency. Israel notified the NSA, where alarmed officials immediately began a hunt for the breach.

Israeli intelligence officers had watched as Russian government hackers searched computers around the world for the code names of American intelligence programs. The hackers were using antivirus software made by a Russian company, Kaspersky Lab, that is used by 400 million people worldwide, including by officials at some two dozen American government agencies. That revelation led to a U.S. decision just last month to order Kaspersky software removed from government computers.

The Russia hackers apparently converted the Kaspersky software into a sort of Google search for sensitive information. The Wall Street Journal reported last week that Russian hackers had stolen classified NSA materials from a contractor using the Kaspersky software on his home computer. But the role of Israeli intelligence in uncovering that breach and the Russian hackers’ use of Kaspersky software in the broader search for American secrets have not previously been disclosed. New York Times, Washington Post
Mueller can’t save us: “It is comforting to reduce the mess of our politics to a clash between the opposing deities of Mueller and Trump,” writes Quinta Jurecic in the Washington Post. “But doing so is also a way to avoid grappling with more difficult problems: What does it mean to have a president who behaves this way? What forces carried him into office, and how do we as a country address them? These are not questions that an official investigation can answer. Ultimately, we imagine Mueller as a white knight because it’s easier than taking responsibility for confronting this presidency ourselves.”

Iran: Trump’s gift to the hardliners: “If Donald Trump decertifies the nuclear deal this week, the political fallout within Iran will be no different from earlier instances of Washington’s punishing of Iran’s moderates,” writes Trita Parsi in the New York Review of Books. “Voices against the deal in Iran will strengthen, and those who favor a more confrontational policy toward Washington will once again have the wind in their sails. This help to Iran’s hard-liners could not come at a more opportune time.”

Trump’s Iran derangement: Decertifying the Iran nuclear deal “would be the rashest, most foolish act of the Trump administration to date,” writes Roger Cohen in the New York Times. “It’s America’s word as solemn gage that has underwritten global security since 1945. Goodbye to all that.”

The real problem with Trump’s foreign policy plans? He may not have any: “Trump’s slurs and insults may be distracting us from a more basic foreign policy problem: On some key issues, when it comes to actual policy plans, the cupboard is bare,” writes David Ignatius in the Washington Post.
For cutting-edge analysis of the geopolitical events shaping global affairs, read today’s TSC IntelBrief.

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