The Soufan Group Morning Brief



A UN human rights investigator said on Wednesday that he had information about an inmate being tortured at Guantanamo Bay, despite Washington banning “enhanced interrogation techniques” almost 10 years ago. UN Special Rapporteur on Torture Nils Melzer said he had information that Ammar al-Baluchi, who is accused of being a co-conspirator in the 9/11 attacks, was being subjected to treatment that is banned under international law.

Citing a 2014 Senate investigation, the UN statement said al-Baluchi was said to have suffered relentless torture for over three years in CIA “black sites” before being moved to Guantanamo, where he had been in a severely restricted-access facility at Guantanamo Bay for more than a decade. “His torture and ill-treatment are reported to continue,” a statement from the UN human rights office said, without giving details of the source of Melzer’s information. A Pentagon spokesman denied the allegation, saying “These claims have been investigated on multiple occasions in the past and no credible evidence has been found.” Reuters

In an email to Newsweek, Melzer said if the reports he has received are true, “the conditions of detention some of the high security inmates are subjected to can only be described as cruel, inhuman and degrading.” He added that by engaging in this practice, the U.S. is sending “a dangerous message of complacency and impunity to officials in the U.S. and around the world.” He said the only way to determine whether the reports are accurate is for the U.S. allow an independent investigation by international experts. Days before assuming office, President Trump endorsed the use of torture against terror suspects, saying, “Absolutely I feel it works.” Newsweek, USA Today

Trump asserts authority to free Guantanamo captives: In a statement attached to the latest defense bill, President Trump said he is keeping Guantanamo Bay open but has the commander-in-chief’s power to release captives. The move borrows former President Obama’s playbook, which cast restrictions on the president’s transfer authority by Congress as encroaching on presidential power to make decisions in the interest of national security. In a December 12 statement accompanying his enactment of the National Defense Authorization Act, Trump said, “I reiterate the longstanding position of the executive branch that, under certain circumstances, restrictions on the President’s authority to transfer detainees would violate constitutional separation-of-powers principles, including the President’s constitutional authority as Commander in Chief.” Miami Herald

The U.S. citizen who has been held for the past 13 weeks as an enemy combatant in Iraq also holds citizenship in Saudi Arabia, according to multiple sources familiar with the matter. The Trump administration has so far withheld the identity of the detainee, known only as John Doe. Syrian forces captured him in mid-September while he was reportedly fighting with the ISIS in Iraq and Syria. He was turned over to the U.S. military and has remained in legal limbo ever since. A Justice Department lawyer told a federal judge late last month that the government is still in the “preliminary” phase of determining how to handle the case, which experts say has no exact legal precedent.

The fact that John Doe is a dual citizen may make the administration more likely to seek to transfer him into Saudi custody — something it can only do only if there is no threat that the detainee in question will be tortured and do if Riyadh agrees to strict conditions. In past transfer cases from the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, specific agreements were made about how the receiving country’s intelligence services would monitor the transferred individual. Transferring the detainee would also represent a reversal for President Trump, who criticized former President Obama in January for the transfer of a handful of Guantanamo detainees to Saudi Arabia. The Hill

Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein defended Special Counsel Robert Mueller in the face of questioning Wednesday from the House Judiciary Committee about whether bias might have infected Mueller’s investigation of Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election. Rosenstein said that he had not seen good cause to fire Mueller, and that although some members of the special counsel team had political views, that did not necessarily taint their work. He disputed that the probe is a “witch hunt,” as President Trump has alleged.

“We recognize we have employees with political opinions. It’s our responsibility to make sure those opinions do not influence their actions,’’ Rosenstein said. “I believe that Director Mueller understands that and he is running his office appropriately.” Rosenstein also said he and Mueller talked about what his office was allowed to investigate and what it was not, though he declined to answer directly whether he had granted Mueller permission to expand his mandate.

Rosenstein’s appearance came the day after text messages between two senior FBI officials that disparaged Trump were turned over to lawmakers. House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-VA) referred to the texts in his opening statement, saying they were “deeply troubling to all citizens who expect a system of blind and equal justice.” Washington Post, CNN, ABC News

A new report indicates that the White House may be planning to reduce funding for key U.S. counterterrorism programs and to eliminate one program altogether. The administration is seeking a total of $568 million in cuts from counterterrorism programs from 2017 levels, according to a report released Tuesday by the Democratic staff of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. The report is based on a document sent from the Office of Management and Budget back to the Department of Homeland Security containing White House guidance on the proposed 2019 budget.

The budget offers a glimpse into the president’s priorities as he prepares his 2019 budget proposal, including recommended cuts that would eliminate Visible Intermodal Prevention and Response teams, known as VIPRs. Under the program, VIPR teams can be deployed to prevent or respond to acts of terrorism in train stations, subways, ports, bus stations, and truck rest areas. They also help train police to respond to terrorist incidents, such as the pipe bomb explosion on Monday in Manhattan. The document also indicated the administration would take $27 million from the budget of the Federal Air Marshals, who protect commercial flights, and $11 million from the Domestic Nuclear Detection Office, which responds to nuclear and radiological threats, including at U.S. entry ports. Foreign Policy

Akayed Ullah hears charges in NYC subway bombing from hospital bed: Accused New York City subway bomber Akayed Ullah was presented Wednesday with federal charges that could put him in prison for life. Mullah, lying in a hospital bed at Bellevue Hospital, was linked to a Manhattan federal courtroom by video. He spoke only to give short answers to questions from the judge about the charges, which include material support of a terrorist organization and using a weapon of mass destruction. When he started to give a longer response to a question about his finances, his public defender cut him off. Federal prosecutors asked that he be held without bail, which his attorney did not oppose. He will remain in custody at least until his next court date on January 13. NBC News

Turkish banker accused of helping Iran launder money seeks mistrial: Lawyers for a Turkish banker on trial in New York on charges that he helped Iran evade U.S. sanctions asked a judge on Wednesday to declare a mistrial, saying testimony by a former Turkish police investigator should not have been allowed in court. The lawyers for Mehmet Hakan Atilla said the jury had been “tainted” after hearing Huseyin Korkmaz testify in Manhattan federal court this week that he feared he would be tortured if he returned to Turkey, where he led an investigation involving Turkish officials, Atilla, and others. “Associating the defendant with the specter of mindless and cruel political violence at the hands of his government-based alleged co-conspirators is almost guaranteed to inflame the jury against the defendant,” the lawyers said. Reuters

Russia's Putin laments ‘spymania’ gripping Washington: Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Thursday that “spymania” had been artificially whipped up between Russia and the U.S. and that eventually relations between the two countries would get back to normal. He said that contacts between Russian officials and members of President Donald Trump’s team during his election campaign had been routine, but had been twisted by Trump’s opponents. Reuters

Muslim leaders on Wednesday condemned U.S. President Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and called on the world to respond by recognizing East Jerusalem as the capital of Palestine. Leaders from the 57-member Organization of Islamic Cooperation met in Istanbul to discuss Trump’s decision. Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan, who hosted the summit, said the U.S. move meant Washington had forfeited its role as broker in efforts to end Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “From now on, it is out of the question for a biased United States to be a mediator between Israel and Palestine, ” Erdogan said. Reuters, CNN

Also at the summit, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas for the UN to replace Washington as a mediator in the conflict. He suggested he may not cooperate with the Trump administration’s anticipated effort to hammer out an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal. U.S. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said Wednesday the administration would continue to work on a Mideast plan that it believes will benefit Israelis and Palestinians. Referring to Abbas, she said that the “type of rhetoric that we heard has prevented peace in the past, and it’s not necessarily surprising that those types of things would be said.” Washington Post
Washington Post: Trump Plan to Move U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem Angers Middle East Christians

ISIS threatens U.S. attacks over Jerusalem decision: ISIS has threatened attacks on U.S. soil in retaliation for the Trump administration’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, one of the group’s social media accounts reported on Thursday. In a message on one of its accounts on the Telegram instant messaging service titled “Wait for us” and “ISIS in Manhattan,” ISIS said it would carry out operations and showed images of Times Square and what appeared to be an explosive bomb belt and detonator. Reuters

Putin’s Syria victory lap is premature, experts say: Although ISIS has been routed from its strongholds in Syria, many experts say Russian President’s recent victory lap in the country is premature. “The task of combating armed gangs here in Syria ... has been largely resolved — brilliantly resolved,” Putin told Russian troops in a surprise visit to Syria on Monday. Whatever Putin's next motive, most experts agree that a complete victory for his Syrian ally Bashar al-Assad is some way off. Although precise estimates vary, some say Assad only controls 60 percent of the country, and his forces are still fighting ISIS in the east and other rebels in the west. The parts of the country not governed by the regime are under the command of a web of different actors, each with their own agendas and demands that experts say could lead to more bloodshed. BCS News

Putin must nudge Syria into UN peace deal, mediator says: UN Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura urged Russia on Wednesday to convince the Syrian government to reach a peace deal to end the nearly seven-year-old war. De Mistura, speaking on Swiss television, said failure to make peace quickly through UN mediation could lead to “a fragmentation of Syria.” Asked what signal President Putin could give to Syria, De Mistura said, ”Convince the government that there is no time to lose...You can think you win territory militarily but you have to win the peace.” Reuters
No, Mr. Trump, torture doesn’t work: “Since Sept. 11, 2001, there have been 516 jihadist-related cases brought in federal courts, according to the Center on National Security at Fordham Law School, which keeps track. A vast majority of these cases have been settled with plea agreements. Of the 109 cases that went to trial, every defendant was convicted,” Clyde Haberman writes for the New York Times. “Contrast that with the pathetic record of military tribunals at Guantánamo. After all these years, they have produced a mere eight convictions — and three of them were overturned on appeal.”

Why does the U.S. government have to confiscate prisoner artwork from Guantanamo Bay? “The censorship and human rights violations that are taking place in Guantanamo Bay have long been practiced in my part of the world. They do not work. They do nothing but demean us — all of us,” Mohamedou Ould Slahi writes in the Washington Post. “As a positive person, I have to hope that the current policy of confiscating and permanently suppressing the artistic creations of Guantanamo detainees will be reversed. I hope this for the 41 prisoners who are still in Guantanamo, many of them unjustly. But not just for them. The United States deserves better than this, too.”

Why China won’t rescue North Korea: “The real possibility of chaos on the peninsula means that the United States needs to update its thinking about Beijing’s motivations,” Oriana Skylar Mastro writes in Foreign Affairs. “Given how weak Beijing’s ties to Pyongyang are, and given China’s own concerns about North Korea’s nuclear program, the two great powers may find surprising common ground. With some forward thinking, the United States could lessen the risk of an accidental conflict and leverage Chinese involvement to reduce the costs and duration of a second Korean war.”

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

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