The Soufan Group Morning Brief


During the second day of his confirmation hearing, Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch faced pointed questions from Democratic senators regarding his involvement in defending the torture policies of the George W. Bush administration while Gorsuch was an official there. In 2005, Gorsuch was a senior official in the Justice Department, where he dealt with many war-on-terror controversies, including negotiations with Congress about the Detainee Treatment Act. That bill barred interrogators from inflicting cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment on prisoners anywhere in the world, but President Bush issued a separate signing statement when he signed the bill, empowering him to bypass the statute under his powers as commander in chief.

Gorsuch said the signing statement divided the administration and that he wasn’t a policy advocate. My “involvement in this process was as a lawyer. That’s all I was. I was a lawyer for a client,” the nominee insisted.

Gorsuch also repeatedly brushed off Democratic attempts Tuesday to nail down his position on issues ranging from abortion to gun regulations to voting rights, while pledging that he would have no problem ruling against President Trump. New York Times, Politico, LA Times
Diplomats from around the world meet at the State Department today for the Trump administration’s first global meeting of the global coalition to defeat ISIS. This is the first since December 2014 in which representatives from all 68 countries of the coalition are expected to attend. The State Department has said the goal of the conference was to accelerate international efforts to defeat IS in the remaining areas it holds in Iraq and Syria and maximize pressure on its branches, affiliates, and networks. New York Times, VOA
CNN: Trump’s Secret Plan to Defeat ISIS? A Lot Like Obama’s

Families of 850 victims who died in the Sept. 11 attacks and 1,500 people injured that day filed suit against the Saudi government on Monday, accusing it of providing material and financial assistance to al Qaeda for years leading up to the attack. “9/11 could not have happened without Saudi Arabia’s support for al Qaeda,” Jim Kreindler, attorney and co-chairman of the plaintiffs’ committee, told CNN. The plaintiffs are seeking monetary damages from the Saudi government. CNN, The Hill

The family of Robert Levinson, a part-time consultant for the CIA who disappeared a decade ago in Iran, filed suit against Iran this week, claiming that it had used a campaign of deception and lies to conceal its role in his imprisonment. New York Times, CNN

Twitter suspends extremist accounts: Twitter announced Tuesday that in the last six months of 2016, it suspended nearly 377,000 accounts for promoting terrorism. Most of those accounts were caught using Twitter’s filters. CNET

NYC settles Muslim discrimination suit: New York City has agreed to pay $1.6 million to settle a 2013 discrimination suit in which several prominent Muslim clerics accused the NYPD of unlawful surveillance. In related news, former federal judge Stephen Robinson will serve as the civilian watchdog on an NYPD surveillance panel to make sure the department doesn’t conduct unconstitutional monitoring of Muslims and other religious groups. New York Daily News, New York Post

FBI examining far-right sites: The FBI’s probe of Russian influence in the 2016 election includes a look at whether far-right news sites played any role in dramatically widening the reach of some fake news stories. McClatchy

UK’s Johnson to visit Washington: British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson is set to visit Washington this week, where he will reportedly meet with presidential aide Steve Bannon and avoid bringing up the flap over Trump’s suggestion that GCHQ helped President Obama wiretap Trump Tower. Guardian

Western and African counterterrorism officials say that leaders of ISIS’s Libyan branch are regrouping, exploiting the chaos and political vacuum gripping the country. “The instability in Libya and North Africa may be the most significant near-term threat to U.S. and allies’ interests on the continent,” Gen. Thomas D. Waldhauser, head of the Pentagon’s Africa Command, told a Senate panel this month. New York Times

Houthi forces in Yemen appear to be using a type of drone probably built by Iran to attack Saudi and UAE missile defense sites, defense experts say -- proof that Iran has stepped up its assistance to Yemen’s rebel Houthi movement by sending advanced weapons and military advisers. Reuters, Washington Post

North Korean sanctions: Reuters reports that the Trump administration is considering sweeping sanctions aimed at cutting North Korea off from the global financial system in order to counter Pyongyang's nuclear and missile threat. Reuters
Washington Post: North Korean Missile Explodes Seconds After Launch

Syria strike: At least 33 people were killed in a U.S.-led coalition strike on a school used as a center for displaced people near the Syrian town of Al-Mansoura, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Wednesday. Guardian

Hours after the U.S. announced a ban on electronic devices in the cabins of international flights to the U.S. from a handful of Middle Eastern and North African countries, British officials announced a similar ban, though from a slightly different set of countries. The UK’s cabin ban affects flights to the UK originating in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, Tunisia and Saudi Arabia. Officials told the Wall Street Journal that the new U.S. policy wasn’t based on a specific or near-term threat, but on more general intelligence about an enduring desire by terrorists to hit airlines coming from that region. The New York Times cited government sources who said that the ban was driven by intelligence showing that ISIS is developing a bomb that can be hidden in portable electronics. Wall Street Journal, BBC News, New York Times

Despite criticism from human rights activists, Pakistan has passed a bill that would reinstate secret military courts for civilians accused of terror offenses. Under the previous system, which was set up in response to a terror attack in 2015, those accused are not allowed to hire their own attorneys (one is appointed for them); there is no right to an appeal; media is prohibited; and judges are not required to have law degrees. BBC News
A president’s credibility: “If President Trump announces that North Korea launched a missile that landed within 100 miles of Hawaii, would most Americans believe him? Would the rest of the world?” asked the Wall Street Journal in an editorial. “We’re not sure, which speaks to the damage that Mr. Trump is doing to his Presidency with his seemingly endless stream of exaggerations, evidence-free accusations, implausible denials and other falsehoods.”

Rex Tillerson is still acting like a CEO: “Secretary of State Tillerson’s recent remarks [about not needing the press] suggest that his problem is not that he can’t handle the press but that he is too hubristic or too set in his ways to accept the challenge—and the fundamental responsibility of holding high public office in a democratic country,” writes Steve Coll in the New Yorker.

How to read what Comey said: “This was a very reticent Jim Comey” who appeared before the House Intelligence Committee on Monday, writes Benjamin Wittes in Lawfare. “And while he asked us not to read anything into that, I read one big thing into it anyway: there's a significant investigation going on, and Comey doesn't want either Congress or presidential tweets to impede his conduct of it.”

ISIS is winning the cyber war. Here’s how to stop it. “To date, U.S. efforts to monitor ISIS's use of social media and counter its online propaganda and recruitment efforts have been tentative, hesitant and amateurish,” write Andrew Byers and Tara Mooney in The Hill. “To defeat ISIS in cyberspace, the United States must first commit itself to establishing a strategic plan that emphasizes flexibility, adaptability, information-sharing and cooperation among government agencies.”
For cutting-edge analysis of the geopolitical events shaping global affairs, read today’s TSG IntelBrief: The Growing Terror Threat in the Year Since Brussels

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