The Soufan Group Morning Brief



A bipartisan group of U.S. lawmakers unveiled legislation on Wednesday that would overhaul aspects of the National Security Agency’s warrantless internet surveillance program in an effort to install additional privacy protections. The measure, introduced by the House Judiciary Committee, is likely to revive debate in Washington over the balance between security and privacy.

Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which allows U.S. intelligence agencies to eavesdrop on and store vast amounts of digital communications from foreign suspects living outside the U.S., is set to expire on December 31. The Trump administration wants the measure to be renewed permanently without change.

House members generally agree that the authority is useful and that it should be renewed. But a number of lawmakers are concerned that the authority allows the FBI to query the Section 702 database for emails and phone-call transcripts of Americans without first obtaining a warrant. The Judiciary Committee’s bill, which would renew Section 702 for six years, would not restrict the query process itself. But the legislation, called the USA Liberty Act, would require the FBI to obtain a warrant to review any communications that are returned in response to a query seeking evidence of a crime. It would not apply to queries for counterterrorism, counterproliferation, or counterespionage purposes. Reuters, Washington Post, Bloomberg

The girlfriend of Stephen Paddock, the gunman who opened fire on a country music festival in Las Vegas on Sunday night, said Wednesday she had no warning about his plans to carry out the massacre and pledged to cooperate with authorities. Marilou Danley was in the Philippines at the time of the attack. She said Paddock had bought her a ticket to visit family and wired her money there. In her statement, Danley stressed that she returned to the U.S. voluntarily, “because I know that the FBI and the Las Vegas police department wanted to talk to me, and I wanted to talk to them.” She added, “It never occurred to me in any way whatsoever that he was planning violence against anyone.” New York Times, Washington Post
New York Times: Las Vegas Shooting: Gunman Fired at Tanks Filled With Jet Fuel
CNN: Las Vegas Gunman Planned to Escape After Massacre, Sheriff Says

Special Counsel Robert Mueller has taken over FBI inquiries into a former British spy’s dossier of allegations of Russian links to President Donald Trump’s campaign and associates. A report compiled by former MI6 officer Christopher Steele identified Russian businessmen and others whom U.S. intelligence analysts have concluded are Russian intelligence officers or are working on behalf of the Russian government. Three sources with knowledge of Mueller’s probe said his investigators have assumed control of multiple inquiries into allegations by U.S. intelligence agencies that Russia interfered in the election on behalf of President Trump. Reuters

Meanwhile, on Wednesday, Chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee Richard Burr (R-C) said his committee trusts the intelligence community’s assessment that Russia sought to interfere in the election. But the committee is still pursuing questions about whether any of President Trump’s associates colluded with Moscow. Politico
Politico: 5 Things We Learned from the Senate’s Russia Probe Update
Washington Post: Congress to Trump, Basically: Russia is Not Fake News

The U.S. government should have anticipated Russia’s efforts to meddle in the 2016 elections, FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe said Wednesday. “The fact is, the Russians have been targeting us with everything they have over the last 50 years.” He said the intelligence community had enough information to foresee extensive efforts by Russian government-linked hackers and operatives to influence the election.

Also on Wednesday, the Wall Street Journal, citing NATO troops and officials, reported that Russia had targeted the smartphones of 4,000 NATO troops that have been stationed in Poland and the Baltics since June to deter aggressive Russian actions in the region. Officials say the hacks aimed at gathering operational information, gauging troop strength, and intimidating NATO soldiers. Wall Street Journal, Vox

Tension within President Trump’s national security team spilled into public view on Wednesday as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called a news conference to affirm his support for Trump, despite what associates describe as his deep frustration with the president and talk of resignation. Tillerson praised the president in the news conference, but did not deny a report that he once referred to Trump as a “moron.” Trump welcomed Tillerson’s statement of support and declared “total confidence” in his secretary of state. New York Times, Politico, CNN

Yet the episode appeared to fuel further debate about the secretary of state’s future in the administration.  Although he insisted he had never considered resigning from his post, several people close to Tillerson said he has had to be talked out of drafting a letter of resignation on more than one occasion by Defense Secretary James Mattis and now Chief of Staff John Kelly. Reports also highlighted a growing rift between Tillerson and UN Ambassador Nikki Haley. Officials have reportedly complained privately that Haley has inserted herself into portfolios under Tillerson’s purview and has not consulted with the State Department before publicly delivering policy views. CBS News, NBC News
ABC News: Trump, Tillerson Have Sharp Differences on Policy Despite Denials
CNN: Are Tillerson’s Days Numbered?

Testimony on Benghazi attacks continues in third day of trial: David Ubben, a State Department security agent, testified on Wednesday at the third day of the federal trial of Ahmed Abu Khattala, the accused ringleader of the September 2012 attacks on the U.S. diplomatic mission and nearby CIA post in Benghazi, Libya. After surviving an attack on the U.S. mission, Ubben was struck in the skull with shrapnel from a mortar round while standing watch on the roof of the CIA annex.

Ubben offered no evidence linking Khattala to either attack. In opening statements, Khattala’s defense team conceded that he was outside the U.S. mission during the attack and later briefly went inside, but said he did so only out of curiosity, and emphasized that he went home before the mortar attack on the CIA annex. But Assistant U.S. Attorney Julieanne Himelstein appeared on Wednesday to be trying to use Ubben’s testimony to link the two attacks. She asked Ubben questions about maps that the attackers looted from the mission that showed the CIA annex’s location. The suggestion was that the attackers may have used those maps for the mortar attack. New York Times

Pentagon pumping millions more into missile defense: The Pentagon is injecting $440 million more into missile defense, including another expansion of its fleet of missile interceptors, to counter North Korea’s accelerating push for a nuclear-armed missile capable of hitting the U.S. Reflecting a sense of urgency, the Pentagon asked Congress to let it shift funds from the current budget rather than wait for the next defense budget. The Pentagon already had $8.2 billion in its missile defense budget prior to the add-ons. Associated Press

Iraqi forces captured ISIS’s last stronghold in northern Iraq on Thursday, leaving the militant group holed up in pockets of land near the Syrian border. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said the Iraqi military retook the town of Hawija from ISIS, adding that only areas on the town’s outskirts remained to be recaptured. The offensive was carried out by U.S.-backed Iraqi government troops and the Shia-led paramilitary Popular Mobilization force. Reuters, BBC News

The capture of Hawija, in Kirkuk province, brings Iraqi forces into direct contact with Kurdish Peshmerga fighters. The region has been a focal point in a decades long dispute between Baghdad and Kurdish leaders over borders. It was also a flashpoint last month when the Kurdish Regional Government held a referendum on Kurdish independence in northern Iraq. In remarks after the capture of Hawija, Abadi renewed an offer to jointly administer Kirkuk with the Kurdish Peshmerga, but under the authority of the central government.  Washington Post
Al Jazeera: Iraq: What is the Strategic Importance of Hawija?

U.S. and Niger forces killed in ambush: Three U.S. Army Special Forces were killed and two were wounded on Wednesday in an ambush in Niger while on a training mission with troops in northwestern Africa, American military officials said. All five of the U.S. soldiers were Green Berets. Several Nigerien soldiers are reportedly died in the attack. U.S. Africa Command said the patrol had come under “hostile fire” and was working to confirm the details of the attack. New York Times, CNN, BBC News

A Somali man suspected of carrying out what was called a terrorist attack in Alberta last weekend came to Canada and was declared a refugee after being ordered expelled from the U.S. several years ago, officials said on Wednesday. Abdulahi Sharif is accused of striking a police officer with a car and stabbing him outside a football stadium in Edmonton, Alberta, on Sunday and later using a rental truck to hit four people elsewhere in the city. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police said Sharif showed signs of extremism two years ago, leading to an investigation, although no charges were brought against him.

The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement service said that it detained Sharif in 2011 in California after he was found near the Mexican border without documentation, and that a judge in September of that year ordered him returned to Somalia. He was released from a detention center two months later, however, “due to a lack of likelihood of his removal in the reasonably foreseeable future,” the agency said. New York Times, The Star

Canadian lawmakers say pro-Russia group tried to derail sanctions law: As Canadian lawmakers took up legislation on Wednesday that would bar businesses from dealing with foreigners who have committed human rights abuses, a nonprofit group called the Russian Congress of Canada pushed hard against the measure. The lawmakers say the effort was part of a broader lobbying campaign orchestrated by Russia against such laws. The pro-Russia group denies any connection to the Kremlin, but lawmakers say the push fits a pattern of Moscow-backed interference in the West. Still, the bill passed unanimously in Parliament, allowing Canada to sanction, freeze assets, or deny entry to foreigners from any country that has violated human rights or engaged in corruption. New York Times

Iran sentences member of nuclear negotiating team to five years in jail: A member of Iran’s team of nuclear negotiators that struck the 2015 deal with world powers has been sentenced to five years in prison after being convicted in Iran of espionage. While unnamed in the report, the only negotiator known to be facing criminal charges is dual Iranian-Canadian national Abdolrasoul Dorri Esfahani. His detention, if confirmed, would make him the latest dual national to be arrested in Iran, part of what a UN panel has called an “emerging pattern” since the atomic accord. Associated Press, The Guardian
Here’s why I resigned as the chief prosecutor at Guantanamo: “I wish I could say that [in the decade since I resigned,] the U.S. recovered from the shock of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, recognized the errors it made, and regained its legal and moral standing on the issue of torture. That would be fake news,” former Chief Prosecutor of the Guantanamo military commissions Col. Morris Davis writes in the LA Times. “I thought the election of Barack Obama, one year after I resigned, signaled the beginning of a new chapter in which America would atone for having veered off course. It was soon clear that my optimism was misplaced.”

The long reach of Guantanamo Bay military commissions: “Despite the success of civilian courts in trying terrorism defendants, there are growing indications that the Trump administration not only intends to keep Guantánamo open, but may even reinvigorate the detention operations and military commissions,” Stephen Vladeck writes in the New York Times. “Whether domestic offenses are or are not within the jurisdiction of the Guantánamo tribunals will have a lot to say about their utility as a policy option for future detainees — along with the legitimacy of the entire military commission enterprise thus far.”

The next Islamic State would be deadlier: “As encouraging as it has been for coalition forces to make so much headway, winning conflicts and taking back land won’t stop the Islamic State for long,” Vera Mironova writes in the Washington Post. “Only widespread change in governmental policies can do that. Local policies dealing with Islamic State militants, ex-fighters and potential recruits lag behind the curve not only in Iraq, but also in almost every country from Southeast Asia to Western Europe.”

Don’t fund Syria’s reconstruction: “Western donors should not finance the regime-led reconstruction effort. In particular, they should not let the political impetus to do something, anything, push them to invest substantially in a political order in Syria that is neither desirable nor stabilizing,” Sam Heller writes in Foreign Affairs. “Maybe later, if there is a shift in the regime’s attitude or the political context, it will make sense to revisit reconstruction and infrastructure spending. But not now or anytime soon.”
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