The Soufan Group Morning Brief



Democrats on the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee have been undertaking their own investigation, without Republicans, on what they call “Russia’s malign influence around the world.” Sean Bartlett, a spokesman for Senator Ben Cardin (D-Md.), who has been leading the effort, said the Democrats are preparing a “major report” on how Russia seeks to sow distrust and confusion, promote radical voices on divisive issues and gain leverage, while eroding support for democracy and institutions.

The investigation comes as a number of Republican-led congressional committees, as well as Special Counsel Robert Mueller, investigate alleged Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election and whether there was collusion between Republican President Donald Trump’s campaign and Moscow. While the Foreign Relations Democrats are not looking into Russian interference in the U.S. election, they said they had discovered Russian-led efforts to influence elections in other countries, including Ukraine, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland. Reuters, Daily Beast

Meanwhile, the federal judge overseeing the criminal trial of former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort and business partner Rick Gates imposed a gag order in the case Wednesday, ordering all parties, including potential witnesses, not to make statements that might prejudice jurors. Manafort and his associate Gates were arraigned in federal court in Washington last week on a 12-count indictment accusing them of conspiring to launder money, failing to disclose foreign bank accounts, and failing to register as foreign agents of Ukraine’s former pro-Russian government. Reuters, CNN, Washington Post, Politico
Washington Post: Collusion Question Remains after First Mueller Indictments
Politico: Kiev Is Buzzing About the Manafort Indictment

The House Judiciary Committee panel on Wednesday passed legislation seeking to overhaul some aspects of the NSA’s warrantless internet surveillance program, overcoming criticism from civil liberties advocates that it did not include enough safeguards to protect Americans’ privacy. The bill would partially restrict the U.S. government’s ability to review American data collected under the foreign intelligence program by requiring a warrant in some cases.

Lawmakers in both parties are sharply divided over whether the compromise proposal to amend what is known as Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act would enshrine sufficient privacy protections or possibly grant broader legal protections for the NSA’s surveillance regime. The House bill, known as the USA Liberty Act, partially restricts the FBI’s ability to review American data collected under Section 702 by requiring the agency to obtain a warrant when seeking evidence of a crime. It does not mandate a warrant in other cases, such as requests for data related to counterterrorism or counter-espionage. Congress must renew Section 702 in some form before December 31 or the program will expire. Reuters

House and Senate negotiators have agreed on an annual defense policy bill that authorizes $700 billion for the Pentagon in the 2018 fiscal year, a dramatic increase over the amount President Donald Trump sought as lawmakers aim to restock what they say is a depleted U.S. military. The bill allots just over $634 billion for core Pentagon operations and nearly $66 billion for wartime missions in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and elsewhere. The funding boost will pay for more troops, jet fighters, ships and other weapons the bill’s backers said are needed to halt an erosion of the military’s combat readiness.

The lawmakers pushing the hardest for the increase still face an uphill battle. For the billions of additional dollars to materialize, Congress first will have to agree to roll back a 2011 law that set strict limits on most federal spending. Lifting the budget caps will face resistance from Democrats who also are seeking to increase the budgets for domestic agencies. Associated Press

The expected deployment of hundreds of additional U.S. Army trainers to Afghanistan early next year will probably increase the total number of American forces there to nearly 16,000, according to U.S. officials. At least 15,000 U.S. forces are in Afghanistan, following President Trump’s decision to send about 3,800 additional troops there to strengthen efforts to advise Afghan forces and conduct counterterrorism missions.

The Army’s new security force assistance brigade is being built and trained at Fort Benning, Ga., and will head to Afghanistan early next year. Officials said Pentagon leaders, primarily Defense Secretary James Mattis, had initially set a tentative cap of about 15,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan. But they said Mattis has made clear he is committed to a force level based on military needs, not an arbitrary number. As a result, the officials said they believe the trainers will add to the total U.S. force number in Afghanistan, and not come in as replacements. Associated Press

Apple says it immediately contacted FBI about unlocking Texas shooter’s iPhone: Apple is refuting the FBI’s account of the aftermath of the Texas gunman’s attack on Sunday, saying it reached out to the bureau “immediately” to offer assistance in getting into the gunman’s iPhone and expedite its response to any legal process. The attacker, Devin Kelley, is confirmed to have been carrying an iPhone that may have crucial information about his activities prior to the shooting.

The FBI originally cast blame on Apple on Tuesday without mentioning the company by name. Head of the FBI’s San Antonio office Christopher Combs said standard encryption was preventing law enforcement from accessing the contents of devices owned by mass shooters. “Law enforcement is increasingly not able to get into these phones,” he said at a press conference. However, a Reuters report on Wednesday said the FBI did not ask Apple for assistance during a critical 48-hour window in which Kelley’s fingerprint could have unlocked the iPhone. The Verge, Reuters

McCain opposes Trump nominee over torture memos: Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) has said that he will refuse to vote for anyone nominated by President Trump who supported torture since or during the administration of George W. Bush. McCain was the sole Republican senator to vote against confirming Steven Engel to lead the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel earlier this week, citing his role in the controversial torture memos under the Bush administration. Engel was confirmed with a vote of 51 to 47 in the Senate.

McCain is also likely to oppose the confirmation of Steven Bradbury to be general counsel at the Department of Transportation. Bradbury authored the so-called torture memos under the Bush administration, which has prompted Senator Tammy Duckworth (D-IL) to put a hold on Bradbury’s nomination. Politico, Newsweek

Saudi Arabia’s blockade of entry points to Yemen threatens to plunge that war-ravaged country into a famine that could starve millions of people, a top UN official said Wednesday. The warning by Mark Lowcock, head of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, was perhaps the most dire so far regarding the blockade’s effects on what already is one of worst man-made disasters. The Yemen crisis has worsened since Saudi Arabia imposed the blockade on Monday after a missile was fired into its territory by the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels. Iranian commanders have denied any role in providing Houthi rebels with missiles.

Despite Saudi Arabia’s assurances that the blockade is temporary while it reviews inspection procedures, virtually all humanitarian deliveries to Yemen have been halted, including at least three UN airplanes full of emergency supplies. Lowcock said the Saudis must immediately allow the entry of food and medicine at all seaports, permit the immediate resumption of air services to the cities of Sanaa and Aden, and provide an “assurance of no further disruption to these services.” Without such steps, he said, Yemen will suffer “the largest famine the world has seen for many decades, with millions of victims.” New York Times, BBC News
New York Times: Iran’s President Defends Yemeni Rebel Attack on Saudi Capital
Washington Post: Saudi Arabia’s Blockade Could Starve Sick Children in Yemen

The Syrian army and its allies have taken Albu Kamal, ISIS’ last major stronghold in Syria near the border with Iraq, marking an end to the group’s project in the region, the army general command said Thursday. The army said it is now fighting the last remaining ISIS pockets in Syria’s eastern desert. Forces from Hezbollah and the Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces crossed into Syria to help capture the town, a commander in the pro-Damascus alliance said. With the fall of Albu Kamal, ISIS militants have no major territorial control in Syria and Iraq and are believed to have dispersed in the desert west and east of the Euphrates River. U.S. officials have estimated that there were between 2,500 and 3,500 ISIS militants around town. Reuters, Associated Press
Bloomberg: Final Islamic State Defeat Brings Syria's War to a Crossroad
BBC: Is ISIS Losing Control of its ‘Virtual Caliphate?’

Pentagon says results of Niger investigation not expected until 2018: The Pentagon said Wednesday has said that the investigation into the deadly Niger ambush last month is expected to be completed in January 2018, but could go longer. The Defense Department said U.S. Army officials have contacted the family members of the four Army Green Berets killed on October 4 during the ambush in Niger “in order to provide a timeline on U.S. Africa Command's investigation into the incident.” An Army investigation team, led by Army Maj. Gen. Roger Cloutier, the chief of staff at U.S. Africa Command, will travel to locations in the U.S., Africa, and Europe to gather information as part of the investigation. Associated Press, The Hill, Voice of America

UN says ISIS’ footprint is spreading in northern Somalia: A militant faction loyal to ISIS has increased its following in northern Somalia from a few dozen individuals last year to up to 200 this year, according to a UN report. The increase in the group’s strength has attracted attention because some security officials fear it could offer a safe haven for ISIS militants fleeing military defeat in Syria or Iraq. Air strikes last week failed to kill the leader of the group, Sheikh Abdulqader Mumin, however a security source said they killed 20 militants. The UN said defectors from Mumin’s faction reported the group had received money and orders from Iraq and Syria. The group group has been slowing increasing its activity over the past year. Reuters

Bomber targeting senior police officer kills four in Pakistan: A suicide bomber struck a vehicle carrying a deputy inspector general of police in the southwestern city of Quetta on Thursday, killing him and three other officers, Pakistani officials said. The Taliban claimed responsibility. Nine people, including police officers, were also wounded in the attack that targeted Hamid Shakil, who had played a key role in arresting militants and members of small separatist groups in recent years, a police officer said. Also on Thursday, the military said a group of militants from neighboring Afghanistan attacked one of the army’s newly built border posts, triggering a shootout in which one soldier and five militants were killed. Associated Press, Reuters

U.S. President Donald Trump heaped praise on President Xi Jinping of China on Thursday, saying he was confident China would help defuse the threat from North Korea and reduce its trade deficits with the U.S., which he blamed on his own predecessors, not the Chinese. Speaking in Beijing, Trump called on Xi to redouble Chinese pressure on Pyongyang over its nuclear and missile programs, declaring, “We have it in our power to liberate the world” from the North Korean “menace.” Following the meeting, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the U.S. delegation was “quite pleased” because there was “no disagreement” on North Korea. He added that Trump pressed Xi to fully implement the economic sanctions on Pyongyang authorized by the UN Security Council. CNN

On trade, while Trump vowed to redress chronic trade imbalances with China, he framed them as a failure of American policy, and said he could not blame the Chinese for taking advantage of Americans. For his part, Xi said the Chinese economy would become increasingly open and transparent to foreign firms, including those from the U.S., and welcomed U.S. companies to participate in his ambitious “Belt and Road” infrastructure-led initiative. American investment deals with Chinese companies worth more than $250 billion are expected during the visit. Reuters, New York Times, CNN
New York Times:  Trump is Ceding Global Leadership to China

The U.S. and its military allies in Europe agreed Wednesday to establish a new cyber command center that will allow NATO to incorporate electronic weaponry in its operational planning, the alliance’s top official said. The decision comes at a time of growing concern over Russian cyber intrusions and meddling, including a recent string of attacks on U.S. troops operating in Poland who have had their smartphones hacked while on deployment.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said the allies agreed to establish a new cyber operations center as part of an overhaul of NATO’s command structure. “We must be just as effective in the cyber domain as we are on land, at sea and in the air, with real-time understanding of the threats we face and the ability to respond however and whenever we choose,” Stoltenberg said at the start of a two-day defense ministers conference in Brussels. “The NATO command structure is the backbone of the alliance. The command structure has to change when the security environment is changing.” Stars and Stripes, Bloomberg

Iran appears confident it can deal with a hostile U.S.: A fierce nationalism grips an increasingly confident Iran as its paramilitary chalk up more successes in the Arab world and the broader region. At the same time, the country is swiftly modernising, attracting troves of foreign investment despite Trump’s efforts to curb its ambitions. Financial Times

Turkish police detain more than 100 ISIS suspects: Turkish police have detained 111 people in Ankara over suspected links to ISIS and have arrest warrants for a total of 245 suspects in the capital and surrounding province, state-run media said Thursday. It said 1,500 police officers were taking part in the operation across Ankara province, raiding 250 addresses. Associated Press
Don’t rebuild the surveillance “wall:” What may be the U.S. government’s most valuable authority to protect citizens from terrorism and other national-security threats is due to expire at the end of the year—Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act,” Michael B. Mukasey writes in the Wall Street Journal. “The good news is that Congress is considering proposals to renew that law. The bad news is that many of those proposals include burdens that would radically diminish its effectiveness. Worse, some of these ill-considered proposals come from people who claim to support the law.”

The T-word: When is an attack terrorism? “At least in theory, a violent act is deemed terrorism when it’s perpetrated by a non-state actor against a civilian target for a political goal...This is a neat coding scheme until you try to apply it,” Max Abrahms writes in LA Times. “It’s no wonder we’re having a tough time fighting the terrorists when there’s still so much confusion over who they are.”

The end of Saudi-style stability: “For decades, Saudi Arabia was a stable and reliable economic and strategic partner of the United States. That country no longer exists,” Thomas W. Lippman writes in the New York Times. “The purging in Riyadh seems to have stopped — for now. But what happens next? Domestic turmoil is hardly probable, but it may now be more possible than it was before the weekend...The more urgent question facing the crown prince is how his latest moves will be received within the ruling family.”

Russia’s role in securing Asia’s prosperity: “As a major Eurasian power with vast Far Eastern territories that boast significant potential, Russia has a stake in the successful future of the Asia-Pacific region, and in promoting sustainable and comprehensive growth throughout its territory,” Russian President Vladimir Putin writes in Bloomberg. “For Russia, the development of our Far East is a national priority for the 21st century. We are talking about creating territories of advanced economic growth in that region, pursuing large-scale development of natural resources and supporting advanced high-tech industries, as well as investing in human capital, education and health care, and forming competitive research centers.”

Moderated by Peter Bergen
Monday, Nov. 20, 7PM
Fordham Law School

For cutting-edge analysis of the geopolitical events shaping global affairs, read today’s TSC IntelBrief.

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