The Soufan Group Morning Brief


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TUESDAY, MARCH 21, 2017
COMEY CONFIRMS FBI IS INVESTIGATING TRUMP’S RUSSIA TIES

In an extraordinary admission before the House Intelligence Committee on Monday, FBI Director James Comey confirmed that the bureau is investigating whether members of President Trump’s campaign colluded with Russia to influence the 2016 election. Joined by NSA Director Adm. Michael Rogers, Comey also dismissed Trump’s contention that President Obama had wiretapped him during the campaign, saying investigators have found no evidence to support that allegation. But he did confirm, for the first time, that there has been a counterintelligence probe of Russian meddling into the campaign since July, and that the bureau would pursue the case “no matter how long that takes.”

The White House dismissed most of Comey’s testimony, saying there was no coordination between the Trump campaign and Russia and so there was nothing to investigate. Republican members of the intelligence committee, meanwhile, seemed most exercised by leaks to the media, repeatedly questioning Comey and Rogers about leaks that led to the firing of national security adviser Michael Flynn. New York Times, Washington Post
Related:
Politico: Highlights from the Hearing
NPR: 4 Unanswered Questions about the FBI’s Russia Investigation
U.S. BANS DEVICES ON FLIGHTS FROM EIGHT MUSLIM-MAJORITY COUNTRIES
U.S. officials are set to announce today that passengers flying to the U.S. from 10 airports in eight Muslim-majority countries in the Middle East and North Africa will be prohibited from bringing laptops, tablets and other portable electronic devices into the airplane cabin during their flights. The devices must be packed in their checked luggage instead. The ban will remain in place indefinitely, federal officials told reporters. CNN, citing an unnamed U.S. official, said the ban on electronics on certain airlines was related to al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and that some information came from a recent U.S. special forces raid in Yemen. Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, CNN

U.S. TRIES TO STRIP CITIZENSHIP OF CONVICTED AL QAEDA OPERATIVE
The Trump administration on Monday filed a rare denaturalization lawsuit against a man convicted 14 years ago of being involved in an al Qaeda plot in New York. Iyman Faris, a 47-year-old Pakistan native who is now a naturalized U.S. citizen, is currently serving a 20-year prison sentence for conspiring to destroy the Brooklyn Bridge. He is now accused of illegally obtaining citizenship in 1999 by falsely swearing allegiance to the U.S. Guardian, Lawfare

Trump meets with Iraqi PM: President Trump met with Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi on Monday at the White House, where they discussed the fight against ISIS. The Hill, Washington Post

Gorsuch confirmation hearing: The confirmation hearing for SCOTUS nominee Neil Gorsuch continues today. After an opening day of glowing assessments from Republicans, he likely faces a grilling today by Democrats on major issues including abortion and gun rights. Wall Street Journal

Tillerson’s schedule: Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will reportedly skip a major NATO meeting in Brussels with European foreign ministers next month. He may attend President Trump’s meeting with visiting Chinese President Xi Jinping at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida instead, though the State Department has declined to confirm that. The following week, Tillerson will travel to Moscow, a decision that has raised eyebrows given the political climate surrounding U.S.-Russia ties. Washington Post

Abu Zubaydah testimony: Monday was the opening of a two-week hearing in the Sept. 11 case, and the judge agreed to hear testimony next week from forever prisoner Abu Zubaydah, who will be called as a trusted Camp 7 block leader to describe his interactions with and on behalf of accused 9/11 plot deputy Ramzi bin al Shibh. Bin al Shibh claims  someone is intentionally disrupting his sleep at the clandestine Camp 7 prison, in a bid to disrupt his preparations for his death-penalty trial. Miami Herald


IN SYRIA, REBELS LAUNCH FRESH ASSAULT ON DAMASCUS
Syrian rebels stormed a major road junction leading into the heart of Damascus on Tuesday as they launched an offensive to regain ground lost to the army over the weekend. The fighting follows a surprise attack on Sunday by Syria’s al-Qaida branch. In that attack, jihadists used tunnels they control in northeastern Damascus neighborhoods to hit government positions, which appears to have caught the Syrian military off guard. Reuters, Washington Post, BBC News

IAEA: NORTH KOREA HAS DOUBLED SIZE OF URANIUM-ENRICHMENT FACILITY
The U.N.’s top nuclear inspector says that North Korea has doubled the size of its facility for enriching uranium in recent years. Yukiya Amano, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, said North Korea is rapidly advancing its capacity to produce nuclear weapons, and voiced doubt that a diplomatic agreement can end leader Kim Jong Un’s weapons programs. Wall Street Journal

Pakistan-Afghanistan border reopens: After a month of closure, hundreds of trucks have crossed into Afghanistan from Pakistan after the border reopened Tuesday. Associated Press
 
TOP OP-EDS
Comey’s haunting news on Trump and Russia: “The acknowledgment by James Comey on Monday that the FBI is investigating possible connections between President Trump’s campaign and Russia’s efforts to sabotage Hillary Clinton’s chances is a breathtaking admission,” writes the New York Times in an editorial. “While there has been a growing body of circumstantial evidence of such links, Mr. Comey’s public confirmation ought to mark a turning point in how inquiries into Russia’s role in the election should be handled.”

How TV can help fight ISIS: “The U.S. has still not dedicated anything close to the resources necessary to prevail against extremist ideology,” write Paula Dobriansky and Aaron Lobel in Politico Magazine. “To do so requires nothing less than a full-scale generational commitment to engage, support and empower moderate forces in the Muslim world. One of the most impactful ways to amplify these courageous voices is through comprehensive partnerships with the largest, most credible media outlets in the Muslim world.”

How Trump should manage Afghanistan: “Although most U.S. media coverage has focused on U.S. operations in Syria and Iraq, Afghanistan remains an important frontline state in the struggle against terrorism,” writes Seth Jones in Foreign Affairs. “Washington’s goals there should be limited: aggressively pursue terrorists that threaten the United States, prevent Taliban forces from overthrowing the Afghan government, and encourage a more sustainable and effective Afghan government.”

Russia cannot live with the West -- or without it: “With diminishing resources, the Kremlin has increasingly resorted to intimidating the world’s liberal democracies into accepting Russia’s grand ambitions,” writes Lilia Shevtsova in the Financial Times. “But Russian technological backwardness is, according to former finance minister Alexei Kudrin, a serious ‘threat to sovereignty.’ Indeed, it increases Moscow’s dependence on the liberal democracies, undermining in the process not only its great power pretensions, but also its independence.”
EDITOR'S PICK
 
SOUFAN GROUP
For cutting-edge analysis of the geopolitical events shaping global affairs, read today’s TSG IntelBrief: Iran's Developing Election Battle




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