The Soufan Group Morning Brief


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THURSDAY, OCTOBER 19, 2017
AT HEARING, SESSIONS REFUSES TO DISCUSS CONVERSATIONS WITH TRUMP ABOUT COMEY OR RUSSIA

At an oversight hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday, Attorney General Jeff Sessions rebuffed repeated requests from Democratic lawmakers to detail his conversations with President Trump about the firing of FBI Director James Comey in May and dodged questions about Russian meddling in the 2016 election. The oversight hearing marked the first time that Sessions has appeared before the Judiciary Committee since his confirmation hearing in January, and much of the hearing was spent talking about Russia. During testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee in June, Sessions also refused to answer questions about his conversations with Trump, saying they were potentially subject to an assertion of executive privilege by the president.

Lawmakers also accused Sessions of changing his answers about his communications with Russian officials in 2016. Sessions reportedly spoke twice last year with then Russian Ambassador to the U.S. Sergey Kislyak, but did not disclose the encounters when asked during his confirmation hearing about possible contacts between members of Trump’s campaign and representatives of Moscow. On Wednesday, when asked whether he had discussed Trump policy positions or the campaign with Kislyak, Sessions said he was unsure, adding that it was possible that “some comment was made about what Trump’s positions were.” Sessions also said he has not been interviewed by special counsel Robert Mueller, who is leading the probe into Russian interference in the election. Washington Post, CNN, NBC News

Sessions also used the hearing to defend Trump’s latest travel ban, saying it could help prevent terror attacks in the U.S. He called the directive, which was blocked by two different federal judges on Tuesday and Wednesday, an “important step” in the fight against terror. “It’s a lawful, necessary order that we are proud to defend,” Sessions said, adding, “We are confident we’ll prevail, as time goes by, in the Supreme Court.” New York Times
Related:
The Hill: Sessions Spars with Dems at Heated Oversight Hearing
LA Times: Trump and Sessions are Still Telling Different Stories About Comey

RUSSIA PROBES SPUR LAWMAKERS ON SOCIAL MEDIA ADS, ELECTION SECURITY
After months of congressional investigations into Russian interference with U.S. elections, legislation is gaining traction in the Senate that would impose new disclosure requirements for political advertising on Facebook, Twitter, Google and other social media. Senator John McCain (R-AZ) gave a boost to a proposal by Senators Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) and Mark Warner (D-VA) to require the disclosure of who pays for online political ads, announcing that he will co-sponsor the bill. In two weeks, executives for the social media giants are due to testify at public hearings about Russia’s use of their networks to interfere in the 2016 election.

Bipartisan efforts are also underway to protect voting machines and databases from cyber intrusions and to more easily identify Russian attempts at influencing U.S. elections by requiring shell companies to disclose their owners. Those efforts follow reports that Russia attempted to access 21 state voter databases during the 2016 election. Bloomberg
Related:
NBC News: Facebook’s General Counsel to Testify to Congress in Russia Probe

Fusion GPS officials visit Capitol Hill, won’t testify: Officials from Fusion GPS, the firm that commissioned the disputed dossier on President Trump’s connections to Russia, met with the House Intelligence Committee on Wednesday but  refused to offer any testimony. The brief appearance was the latest development in a long-running public dispute between the committee’s chairman, Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA.), and top officials at the firm. Fusion GPS lawyer Josh Levy said two officials affiliated with the company met with the committee, bowing to a recent threat of a subpoena from Nunes. But Levy said the company officials decided to “invoke constitutional privileges” not to testify. Politico

Guantanamo guards seize confidential 9/11 terror trial defense files: In the latest challenge to attorney-client confidentiality at Guantanamo, prison guards on Wednesday seized the court-approved, non-networked laptop computers and hard drives issued to the accused 9/11 attack plotters to prepare for their death-penalty trials. Army Col. James L. Pohl ordered the Guantanamo detention center staff not to look at the material shared by defense lawyers with the accused 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed and his alleged co-conspirators. Pohl had just opened court Wednesday with a reminder that attorney-client meetings are “fundamental to a fair adjudication of this case” when defense attorney Cheryl Bormann said that privileged material had been seized from her client, alleged plot deputy Walid Bin Attash, as he was being moved to the Camp Justice court compound. The five captives are in their fifth year of pretrial hearings in the case that alleges they directed, trained or helped with finances for the 19 hijackers involved in 9/11. Miami Herald

White House staff drafted Niger sympathy statement for Trump that was never released: Staffers at the National Security Council drafted and circulated a statement of condolence for President Donald Trump to make almost immediately after a deadly ambush of U.S. soldiers in Niger earlier this month. But Trump never publicly issued the statement. The statement was circulated among NSC officials as well as Defense Department officials, and it was not immediately clear why it was never released. The controversy over Trump’s treatment of the issue has since escalated amid allegations that he spoke callously to the wife of one of the fallen U.S. troops during a phone call on Tuesday. Politico


TALIBAN ATTACK KILLS SCORES OF AFGHAN SOLDIERS IN KANDAHAR
Taliban forces nearly wiped out an entire Afghan army post, killing 43 soldiers, when they stormed a base with suicide bombers in the strife-torn southern province of Kandahar. The attack took place Wednesday night after two Humvees packed with explosives were driven into the Afghan National Army base in Kandahar’s Maiwand district, where 60 soldiers were stationed.

Taliban fighters then launched an assault on the facility, setting off several hours of fighting that killed nearly every Afghan soldier there and wounded nine. The battle ended with a U.S. airstrike that killed nine Taliban fighters, NATO officials said. Taliban attacks on Afghan military and police compounds have increased this past week after U.S. officials met with delegations from Afghanistan, Pakistan, and China to discuss the possibility of restarting peace negotiations with the insurgent group. The attack also marks the deadliest week in the country since President Donald Trump's announcement of his new Afghanistan strategy. Washington Post, CBS News, The Guardian

U.S., RUSSIA SET FOR UN ROW OVER SYRIA CHEMICAL WEAPONS INQUIRY
The U.S. said on Wednesday it would push the UN Security Council to renew within days an international inquiry into who is to blame for chemical weapons attacks in Syria, setting the stage for a likely showdown with Russia. Russia has questioned the work of the joint inquiry by the UN and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, and said it would decide whether to support extending the group’s mandate after investigators submit their next report.

The inquiry, known as the Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM), is due to report by October 26 on who was responsible for an April 4 attack on the opposition-held town of Khan Sheikhoun that killed dozens of people. “The Russians have made it very clear that should the report blame the Syrians suddenly they won’t have faith in the JIM. If the report doesn’t blame the Syrians then they say that they will. We can’t work like that,” U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley said. Reuters, Associated Press

TILLERSON SAYS U.S. SEEKS ACCOUNTABILITY FOR MYANMAR ABUSES
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson condemned Wednesday reported atrocities committed against Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar. He said those responsible — perhaps the country’s military — will be held accountable. Tillerson called accounts of the suffering of the Rohingya heartbreaking — and that if those reports are true, then “someone is going to be held to account for that.” Tillerson, who is set to visit South Asia next week, is urging the Myanmar government to improve humanitarian access to the population in western Rakhine state. New York Times, CNN, Voice of America

Also on Wednesday, more than 40 lawmakers urged the Trump administration to reimpose U.S. travel bans on Myanmar’s military leaders and prepare targeted sanctions against those responsible for the crackdown on the Rohingya. In a letter sent to Tillerson, a group of Republican and Democratic members of the House of Representatives called for “meaningful steps” against Myanmar’s military and others who have committed human rights abuses. Reuters

Pakistan says fence on Afghan border will reduce attacks: Pakistan’s military said Wednesday that new fencing and guard posts along the border with Afghanistan will help prevent militant attacks in both countries, but the stepped-up fortifications have angered Kabul, which does not recognize the frontier as an international border. A top Pakistani officer in South Waziristan told foreign media that the fence was an “epoch shift” in control of the border. “There will not be an inch of international border (in South Waziristan) which shall not remain under our observation,” he added. Yet the governor of the eastern Afghan province of Nangarhar, Gulab Mangal, said the fence will create “more hatred and resentment” between Afghanistan and Pakistan and will do neither country any good. Reuters, Associated Press

Thousands protest al-Shabaab as new details of Somalia truck bombing emerge: After three days of mourning, thousands of men and women marched through the streets of Somalia’s capital Wednesday, answering the Mogadishu mayor’s call for unity in the wake of the country’s deadliest terrorist attack, which occurred over the weekend. Meanwhile, Somali intelligence officials began to divulge details of how the attackers, who killed at least 320 people, managed to get inside the heavily guarded city. In what is known as a “knock-knock” strategy, the attackers hoped to detonate a small bomb to blast open the gates of the intended target, allowing a large truck laden with explosives to enter. The bustling intersection where the truck eventually exploded is not thought to have been the intended target. Washington Post


U.S. URGES UN TO ADOPT TRUMP’S COMPREHENSIVE APPROACH TO IRAN
U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley urged the UN Security Council on Wednesday to adopt the Trump administration’s comprehensive approach to Iran and address all aspects of its “destructive conduct.” Her remarks came less than a week after President Trump announced that he would disavow the Iran nuclear agreement and might withdraw the U.S. from the accord altogether unless it was strengthened. She told the council that Iran “has repeatedly thumbed its nose” at council resolutions aimed at addressing Iranian support for terrorism and regional conflicts and has illegally supplied weapons to Yemen and Hezbollah militants in Syria and Lebanon.

Haley also said Iran’s ballistic missile launches were the “most threatening” act by the country. “This should be a clarion call to everyone in the United Nations,” Haley said. “When a rogue regime starts down the path of ballistic missiles, it tells us that we will soon have another North Korea on our hands.” Deputy British Ambassador Jonathan Allen said his country shares concern about Iran’s ballistic missile program and regional activities and stands ready “to take further appropriate measures to address these issues in close cooperation with the U.S. and all relevant partners.” New York Times, Bloomberg, Associated Press

Former French intelligence chief to testify at terror trial: A French ex-intelligence chief is expected to addresses failures in tracking Islamic extremists at the trial over deadly attacks in 2012 on a Jewish school and French soldiers. Bernard Squarcini, now a private security consultant, was heading the French police counterterrorism agency when Mohammed Merah went on a shooting rampage, killing three French paratroopers, three Jewish schoolchildren, and a rabbi. Squarcini said at the time that Merah acted as a lone wolf who became radicalized while in prison for petty crimes and wasn't affiliated with an extremist network. Merah had been placed on a register of people suspected of being radicalized as early as 2006. Associated Press

Macron sets out counter-terror program for next five years: French President Emmanuel Macron unveiled a plan to bolster France’s domestic security on Wednesday during a speech to police forces. His proposals include the creation of a new security force within the police, a plan to combat radicalization, and reforms to asylum procedures. He said he plans to employ 10,000 extra police and gendarmes and promised to provide better “digital tools” and technology for law enforcement. Meanwhile, on Wednesday, the EU announced the allocation of $21.8 million to help governments stop terrorist attacks by smaller, less complex cells and to protect public spaces. France24, Deutsche Welle

Russian socialite enters race to challenge Putin: A young socialite and television journalist whose father was a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin declared her intention on Wednesday to challenge Putin in the presidential election scheduled for next March, a move liable to split the already feeble liberal opposition. In a campaign statement in the Russian daily Vedomosti, Ksenia Sobchak focused on public dissatisfaction with Russian politics, and she said that she was “outside of ideology.” The main liberal opposition candidate, Aleksei Navalny, has been banned from running because of convictions in fraud cases that he has called politically motivated. Washington Post

Ousted Pakistani leader is indicted in corruption case: Nawaz Sharif, former prime minister of Pakistan who was forced from office over corruption allegations in July, was indicted on Thursday along with two other family members on corruption charges. The charges stem from revelations contained in the Panama Papers that Sharif family members owned expensive residential properties in London that were not properly reported under Pakistani disclosure rules. New York Times
TOP OP-EDS
Iraq will remain united: “As prime minister of Iraq, I am required to act in accordance with the Constitution to protect all of the Iraqi people and to keep our country united. To do so, the government has reinforced and restored what is prescribed in its federal mandate: that is, federal authority over national borders, oil exports and customs revenues,” Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi writes in the New York Times. “For the sake of all Iraqi citizens, we cannot allow the seeds of discord to take root again. I urge the leadership in Iraqi Kurdistan to come to its senses. Iraq cannot and will not recognize unilateral, unconstitutional actions taken by a few against the will of the nation.”

A Pakistani man is starving to death in Guantanamo. We have a duty to stop it: “The Pakistan government has not spoken up for Ahmed [Rabbani]; I feel I have to,” Imran Khan writes in the Washington Post. “I call upon all moderate Americans to remember the small number of people languishing in Guantanamo Bay and insist on respect for the principles that the United States was built on — liberty, justice and freedom for all. It is our duty to ensure that Ahmed is kept healthy and alive until he is returned to his wife and son in Karachi.”

America is in denial about Iraq: “Here we go again: We are nearing a military success against the Islamic State but have failed to define the peace that follows, because no serious attempt has been made to even define what that peace should look like in advance,” Emile Simpson writes in Foreign Policy. “This is what happens when you fixate on defeating an enemy militarily but don’t bother with political strategy.”

Yemen’s humanitarian nightmare: “The conflict in Yemen is often described as an outgrowth of the Shiite-Sunni rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia, as Iran has supplied weapons and military advisers to the Houthis. But this misunderstands both the origins of the war and the reason why Saudi Arabia intervened,” Asher Orkaby writes in Foreign Affairs. “The war is not about regional interests; it is a continuation of a long-standing conflict between the Yemeni government and marginalized northern tribes, which escalated thanks to a gradual decline in the legitimacy and competence of the central government in Sanaa.”
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