The Soufan Group Morning Brief

The Soufan Group Morning Brief, May 4, 2017
THURSDAY, MAY 04, 2017

FBI Director James Comey on Wednesday offered his most extensive defense yet of his decision to publicly disclose the reopening of the Hillary Clinton email investigation to Congress less than two weeks before the 2016 presidential election. Not disclosing that the FBI had reopened the investigation in late October would have been “an act of concealment” that might have proven “catastrophic” to the bureau’s integrity, Comey said.

“It makes me mildly nauseous to think that we might have had some impact on the election,” Comey said. But “even in hindsight — and this has been one of the world's most painful experiences—I would make the same decision.”

Comey repeated his conviction that it would have been worse to conceal the reopening of the investigation after thousands of new work emails were found on former Congressman Anthony Weiner’s laptop, who was married at the time to senior Clinton aide Huma Abedin. Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) said he still believed Comey did the wrong thing.“The Justice Department has a procedure. You do not release information like that just before an election,” he said.

Comey also said that former Acting Attorney General Sally Yates discussed her concerns with him that former national security adviser Michael Flynn was not forthcoming about his contacts with the Russian ambassador. Yates is set to testify before the Senate next week on the matter. New York Times, Washington Post, Politico, The Hill
CNN: 10 Things We Learned from FBI Director James Comey’s Senate Hearing
New York Times: 5 Takeaways From James Comey’s Hearing
Susan Rice, the former national security adviser under President Obama, has declined a request to participate in a Judiciary subcommittee hearing next week on Russian interference in the U.S. election. A letter from Rice’s lawyer, addressed to Sen. Lindsey Graham, Republican Chairman of the Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime and Terrorism, and senior Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse, explained the decision not to testify.

“Senator Whitehouse has informed us by letter that he did not agree to Chairman Graham’s invitation to Ambassador Rice, a significant departure from the bipartisan invitations extended to other witnesses,” Ruemmler wrote. “Under these circumstances, Ambassador Rice respectfully declines Senator Graham's invitation to testify.” Rice considered the invitation a “diversionary play” to distract attention from the investigation into Russian election interference.
Foreign Policy: As Russia Investigation Widens, U.S. Lawmakers Get Rare Access to Raw Intel

Tillerson calls for balancing U.S. security interests, values: Translating the Trump campaign slogan “America First” into diplomatic policy, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Wednesday that the United States cannot always afford to condition its foreign relationships and national security efforts on countries adopting U.S. values like human rights. In remarks before State Department personnel, he pledged that diplomats would emerge from the agency’s changes with “a much more satisfying, fulfilling career.” Tillerson did not provide any details about the 2,300 jobs he plans to eliminate from the department or how his proposed cut of roughly a quarter of the State Department budget might affect operations. Associated Press

Russia and Turkey are expected to push for the creation of safe-zones in Syria as talks between the Syrian government and the opposition resume in Kazakhstan today. In a meeting on Wednesday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin said they hoped the Syrian government and the opposition would adopt the proposal for safe “de-escalation.” The proposal would apply to Syrian government and rebel forces in the four main areas of the country where insurgents unaffiliated with ISIS still hold significant territory.

Syria’s Foreign Ministry said Damascus is “fully backing” the Russian initiative. But the opposition remains suspicious of Russian guarantees, as the proposal does not specify measures to prevent air attacks by Syrian government forces, and instead pushes for a nationwide ceasefire.The opposition suspended its participation at the talks on Wednesday in protest against government strikes on opposition-controlled areas. They reportedly returned to the talks today. Al Jazeera, New York Times, Reuters, Washington Post
Washington Post: The Russia-Turkey-U.S. Tussle to Save Syria Will Still Get Very Messy

Mosul offensive moves forward: The U.S.-backed Iraqi offensive to take back Mosul from ISIS gained fresh momentum on Thursday as an armored division advanced into the city from the north. The Iraqi army has opened a new front against the militant group in the northwestern corner of Mosul where ISIS militants are besieged. Reuters

Somali government minister killed in Mogadishu: Somali security forces shot dead Minister of Public Works Abbas Abdullahi Sheikh Siraji in his car on Wednesday after mistaking him for an Islamist militant. Siraji was the youngest minister to serve in the current cabinet of Prime Minister Hassan Ali Khaire and was among the first Somali refugees to return to the country last year from Kenya. President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed Farmajo said he ordered security chiefs to “immediately get to the bottom of this unfortunate tragedy.” Reuters, BBC News, Voice of America

Pakistan, Iran agree to boost border security: Pakistan and Iran have reached an agreement to strengthen security along their shared border after gunmen killed ten Iranian border guards last week. On Wednesday, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif visited Islamabad for talks with Pakistani leadership, where he raised the border incident. Washington Post

A majority of young Arabs see Donald Trump’s election as the factor most influencing their region in the next five years and are concerned that he is anti-Muslim, according to a recent survey by Dubai-based public relations firm ASDA’A Burson-Marsteller. The survey of 18-24 year-olds across 16 Arab countries found that 64 percent of respondents viewed the Trump presidency with “concern, anger or fear.” Half of the respondents said Trump’s proposed travel ban would make it easier for militant groups to recruit young Muslims.

In addition, 21 percent of respondents said that Russia was their country’s top ally, up from only 9 percent in 2016. The United States dropped from 25 percent to 17 percent. Reuters, Financial Times, Buzzfeed News

Far-right candidate Marine Le Pen and centrist Emmanuel Macron clashed over their vision of France’s future and strategies to fight terrorism in a televised debate on Wednesday before Sunday’s run-off vote for the presidency. Le Pen accused Macron of being complacent in confronting Islamist fundamentalism, saying he has no plan and is “ indulgent with Islamist fundamentalism.” Macron responded that terrorism would be his priority if he is elected and accused Le Pen of offering false solutions to the problem.

Also on Wednesday, seven former top French counterterror officials endorsed Macron. The officials said it would be wrong to respond to terrorism with tougher emergency measures that would infringe on civil liberties and democratic values and would feed ISIS propaganda. “This red line must never be crossed,” they wrote. “By crossing it, Mrs. Le Pen is playing into the hands of jihadist groups, and it’s our country she’s putting at risk.” New York Times, Reuters

UK student found guilty of planting homemade bomb on London tube: Damon Smith, a student from Devon in southwest England, was found guilty of planting a homemade bomb filled with ball bearings on the London tube in October of 2016. Smith pleaded guilty but claimed his actions had been a prank -- a claim the jury rejected. The Guardian, BBC News

UK police given more time to question Westminster suspect: Police have been granted another week to question a terror suspect arrested near the British Houses of Parliament. Khalid Mohamed Omar Ali was arrested on suspicion of offences under the Terrorism Act and possession of offensive weapons on April 27. Police said he remains in custody and can be questioned until May 11. BBC News

Algeria votes for new parliament: Algerian voters head to the polls today to elect a new parliament amid fears of voter apathy and opposition calls for a boycott. The polls are the first since Algerian politicians amended the constitutional law in 2016 to give more power to the legislature. More than 12,000 candidates are competing for the 462 seats of the People’s National Assembly. Al Jazeera
Trump and the next terrorist attack: “I worry that President Trump will bungle the response to a jihadist terrorist attack on U.S. soil, making the fear worse at home and helping the terrorists score a win,” writes Daniel Byman in Lawfare. “Based on his initial record in office and rhetoric on the campaign trail, however, Trump might opt for a disastrous approach...This bungling and the President’s many about-faces on issues have damaged his credibility as a messenger and are likely to make people more skeptical of the content of his statements and actions in the aftermath of a terrorist attack.”

The best bet for Syria: freeze the conflict: “Something appears to be shifting in the interaction between major powers in the Syrian conflict. Tuesday’s phone call between U.S. President Donald Trump and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, as well as Putin’s remarks after a meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, show that a partition of Syria into spheres of influence may be in the cards,” writes Leonid Bershidsky in Bloomberg View. “If a ‘safe zone’ or frozen-conflict scheme can be worked out, Putin will have every reason to be happy with the Trump presidency. And it may even be in U.S. interest. Though maintaining the safe zones can be costly, so is a continued conflict with no solution in sight”

Trump’s invitation to Duterte makes sense: “Trump’s invitation to Duterte is a sensible one when understood against a broader geopolitical backdrop. First of all, it was part of a package of invitations handed out to Southeast Asian leaders, including Prime Ministers Lee Hsien Loong of Singapore and Prayuth Chan-ocha of Thailand. In other words, Duterte wasn’t the only foreign leader invited,” writes Richard Javad Heydarian in the New York Times. “Notwithstanding Trump’s own worryingly illiberal rhetoric on law and order issues, the American government, along with allies such as Japan and the European Union, would be in a better position to nudge the Philippines toward a more humane, public-health-focused drug policy if bilateral relations returned to the way things were before. Diplomacy is the art of the possible.”

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