The Soufan Group Morning Brief

The Soufan Group Morning Brief, May 16, 2017
TUESDAY, MAY 16, 2017

President Trump revealed highly classified information to the Russian foreign minister and ambassador in a White House meeting last week, multiple outlets reported on Monday night. President Trump admitted the sharing on Tuesday morning on Twitter. Based on interviews with former and current U.S. officials, the reports said the information the president relayed had been provided by a U.S. partner through an intelligence-sharing arrangement and is considered so sensitive that details have been withheld from allies and tightly restricted even within the U.S. government.

“This is code-word information,” a U.S. official familiar with the matter told the Washington Post, which was the first outlet to break the story. Trump “revealed more information to the Russian ambassador than we have shared with our own allies.”

Officials described Trump's disclosure of the information as spontaneous. Trump appeared to be boasting about his knowledge of looming ISIS threats, telling the Russians he was briefed on “great intel every day.” Trump went on to discuss aspects of a threat that the United States learned about only through the espionage capabilities of a key partner. He did not reveal the specific intelligence-gathering method, but he described how ISIS was pursuing elements of a specific plot and how much harm such an attack could cause under varying circumstances. Most alarmingly, officials said, Trump revealed the city in ISIS’s territory where the U.S. intelligence partner detected the threat. People present in the meeting appeared to immediately recognize the breach, calling the CIA and the National Security Agency after the meeting to inform them what had happened. Washington Post, New York Times, BuzzFeed

White House officials later denied that Trump had discussed intelligence sources or methods. “The story that came out tonight as reported is false,” H.R. McMaster, Trump's national security adviser, told reporters at the White House, adding that the leaders reviewed a range of common threats including to civil aviation. At no time were intelligence sources or methods discussed. The president did not disclose any military operations that were not already publicly known...I was in the room. It didn't happen,” he said.

On Tuesday morning, Trump admitted on Twitter that he shared the classified information with the Russians. "As President I wanted to share with Russia (at an openly scheduled W.H. meeting) which I have the absolute right to do, facts terrorism and airline flight safety. Humanitarian reasons, plus I want Russia to greatly step up their fight against ISIS & terrorism." Twitter

The news triggered outrage and concern in Congress. The Senate's No. 2 Democrat, Dick Durbin, called Trump’s conduct “dangerous” and “reckless.” Bob Corker, the Republican head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, called the allegations “very, very troubling” if true. “Obviously, they’re in a downward spiral right now and they’ve got to come to grips with all that’s happening," he said of the White House. Washington Post, Reuters
Lawfare: Bombshell: Initial Thoughts on the Washington Post’s Game-Changing Story
Politico: Trump’s Handling to Classified Info Brings New Chaos to the White House
Bloomberg: Trump’s Best Defense on Russia Is Incompetence
Bloomberg: Trump’s Classified Disclosure Is Shocking But Legal
USA Today: Conservative Media Not Sold on Story of Trump Revealing Classified Info
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan will meet with President Trump in Washington today. The two leaders have spoken warmly of each other in the past -- Trump called Erdogan to congratulate him after he won a controversial constitutional referendum this spring -- but a recent decision by the Trump administration to arm Kurdish forces in Syria, over loud protests by Ankara, has injected tension into the meeting. Reuters, NPR

President Trump said Monday that the search for an FBI director to replace James Comey is “moving rapidly.” Over the weekend, Mr. Trump said he hoped to pick a new director in short order, saying of the candidates that were being interviewed, “These are outstanding people that are very well known, highest level. So we can make a fast decision.” Aides to the president have said that a decision could be announced even before Friday, when the president leaves for his first overseas trip. CBS News
The Hill: GOP Senators Lukewarm to Lawmaker Leading the FBI

Sentencing of a cooperative al Qaeda witness: The New York Times reports on the sentencing last week of Bryant Neal Vinas, who after his arrest in Pakistan “turned on al Qaeda with devastating effect.” New York Times

Gitmo 9/11 hearing: The Miami Herald reports from Guantanamo that a military judge ruled Monday that a lawsuit brought by a former death-penalty expert on a 9/11 trial defense team could not derail progress in the Sept. 11 case and ordered defense attorneys to continue representing alleged plot deputy Walid Bin Attash. Miami Herald

The Syrian government has constructed and is using a crematorium at its notorious Sednaya military prison near Damascus to clandestinely dispose of the bodies of prisoners it continues to execute inside the facility, the State Department said Monday. Thousands of executed detainees have been dumped in mass graves in recent years, said acting assistant secretary of state Stuart Jones. “We believe that the building of a crematorium is an effort to cover up the extent of mass murders taking place in Sednaya prison,” he said in a briefing for reporters. Washington Post, Reuters, NPR
The Hill: Obama: Not Bombing Syria Took ‘Political Courage’

TV show about life under ISIS: A sprawling, 30-part dramatic series about life under ISIS is scheduled to make its debut on MBC 1, the Arab world’s most watched satellite channel, during the holy month of Ramadan, the New York Times reports. The show, Black Crows, “paints a picture of the Islamic State as a brutal criminal organization run by corrupt and hypocritical leaders. But recruits are depicted as victims, and women who challenge the militants’ control are heroes.” New York Times

Cholera outbreak in Yemen: Authorities in war-torn Yemen declared a state of emergency on Monday because of a fast-spreading cholera epidemic that has killed nearly 190 people in the past two weeks. NPR, CBS News

Lawyers for Dr. Shakil Afridi, the Pakistani doctor who helped the U.S. mission to find Osama bin Laden and whose imprisonment has been a thorn in the relations between the U.S. and Pakistan, said that they expect to be able to present their case in an appeal hearing scheduled for May 24, after three years of postponements. Pakistani officials tell the Wall Street Journal that Pakistan is looking to improve relations with the Trump administration and may use Afridi’s release as a gesture of goodwill. Afridi’s 23-year sentence could be reduced to the time already served, one official said. Another official suggested a presidential pardon was possible. Wall Street Journal

North Korea behind global ransomware? Security researchers have found digital clues in the malware used in last weekend’s global ransomware attack that might indicate North Korea is involved, reports the Washington Post.

Pakistan and India spar over spy: In a rare direct confrontation, India and Pakistan faced off at the International Court of Justice at The Hague on Monday over the death sentence issued to Kulbhushan Jadhav, a retired Indian naval officer whom Pakistan has labeled a spy. Los Angeles Times
How Trump hurts the spying business: “Lauding autocrats, rebuffing refugees and downgrading human rights — as much as reports that Mr. Trump revealed highly classified intelligence to the Russians — has a much more direct, palpable and unmistakably negative impact on our national security,” writes David Cohen in the New York Times. “Tarnishing the idea that America stands for something uniquely good makes it harder for the C.I.A. to recruit spies. The best arrow in the C.I.A.’s quiver — the arrow that has led to countless high-quality recruits signing up over the years — will not be nearly as sharp.”

Can ISIS survive financially? “The loss of territory and direct control over urban populations has shrunk the Islamic State's tax base and decreased extortion opportunities, which has also strained the organization financially,” write Patrick Johnston and Colin Clarke in Lawfare. “Reports trickling out of Mosul in January suggest that it may have stopped paying the salaries of its fighters altogether, sapping morale and triggering desertions.”

The thinning line between commercial and government surveillance: “As part of the Princeton Web Transparency and Accountability Project, we’ve been studying who tracks you online and how they do it,” write Arvind Narayanan and Dillon Reisman in The Atlantic. “Here’s why we think the fight over browsing histories is vital to civil liberties and to a functioning democracy.”

The Syrian Crisis
A discussion with CNN Foreign Correspondent Clarissa Ward and Senior Crisis Advisor to Amnesty International Rawya Rageh
Fordham University School of Law
Thursday, May 18
113 West 60th Street

International Law and National Security: 
A View From Abroad on Current Trends in Targeting, Detention, and Trials

Benjamin Cardozo School of Law
Thursday, May 18
55 Fifth Avenue
For cutting-edge analysis of the geopolitical events shaping global affairs, read today’s TSG IntelBrief: The White House and a Dangerous Disclosure

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