The Soufan Group Morning Brief

The Soufan Group Morning Brief, June 15, 2017

Robert Mueller, the special counsel overseeing the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, is interviewing senior intelligence officials as part of a widening probe that includes an examination of whether President Trump attempted to obstruct justice. Mueller wants to question Dan Coats, the director of national intelligence; Adm. Michael Rogers, the head of the National Security Agency; and Richard Ledgett, the former NSA deputy director, and they could be interviewed as early as this week. The move marks a turning point in the investigation, which has focused on Russia’s actions during the campaign and on contacts between Trump campaign officials and the Kremlin.
None of the three officials was involved in the Trump campaign, but recent reports have raised questions about whether Trump requested their help in getting former FBI Director James Comey to end an investigation into former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn. Coats and Rogers declined to answer questions before Congress about the issue last week. Mueller’s office has also asked the NSA for any documents or notes related to the agency’s interactions with the White House as part of the Russia investigation. The NSA said that it will “fully cooperate with the special counsel.” Washington Post, New York Times, CNN
On Wednesday, Mueller met with leaders of the Senate intelligence committee to discuss how to prevent conflicts in their separate investigations into Russian election interference. He is set to meet with House intelligence panel leaders in the coming days. Lawmakers have urged Mueller to provide details on the areas he is covering in his investigation in order to avoid overlap or conflict with their own probes. Bloomberg, CNN
Wired: Robert Mueller Chooses his Investigative Dream Team
CNN: Judges Keep a Very Close Eye on Trump

A gunman opened fire on Wednesday morning at Republican members of Congress as they held a baseball practice at a park in Alexandria, Virginia, wounding House Majority Whip Steve Scalise and four others. The gunman, James Hodgkinson, a 66-year-old unemployed home inspector from southern Illinois, died after a shootout. Scalise, the third ranking member of House Republican leadership, was in critical condition after suffering damage to internal organs. His injuries will require additional operations. CNN, Washington Post, New York Times
President Trump said Wednesday morning after the incident that Hodgkinson died in the hospital from wounds sustained during a shootout with police. The FBI said it was “actively investigating Hodgkinson, to include his associates, whereabouts, social media impressions and potential motivations.” A Facebook profile believed to have belonged to Hodgkinson, who had volunteered for Sen. Bernie Sanders’ campaign during the 2016 election cycle, included posts calling Trump a traitor and urging his impeachment. Two members of Congress said Hodgkinson asked them whether the players on the field were Democrats or Republicans. ABC News, New York Times
Trump and members of Congress called for unity in the wake of the shooting. “We may have our differences, but we do well in times like these to remember that everyone who serves in our nation's capitol is here because, above all, they love our country.” “An attack on one of us is an attack on all of us,” said House Speaker Paul Ryan told Congress later on Wednesday. Republican members of Congress called for existing restrictions on gun access be eased following the attack, citing the need for self-defense. CNN, CBS News, New York Times
New York Times: Attack Tests Movement Sanders Founded
Washington Post: The Shooting at a GOP Baseball Practice Was an Assault on Democracy
LA Times: A Shooting in Alexandria Brings Gun Violence Directly to Those Best Situated to Act
Boston Globe: After Alexandria Shooting, Both Parties Owe the Nation a More Civil Political Dialogue
The Senate Judiciary Committee is launching a probe into the circumstances behind the firing of former FBI Director James Comey’s, as well as any attempts to influence FBI investigations under the Obama administration. Committee Chairman Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) laid out his plan in a letter to ranking member Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) in response to requests from Democrats to investigate potential obstruction of justice surrounding Comey’s dismissal by President Trump.
Grassley also said the committee is obligated to look into the Justice Department’s handling last year of the probe surrounding Hillary Clinton’s private email use. He cited Comey’s testimony last week before the Senate Intelligence Committee, in which the former FBI director expressed concern that the Department of Justice “could not credibly complete the investigation.” He added, “there should be no improper interference with FBI investigations to favor any elected official or candidate of either party. The Committee has an obligation to pursue all evidence of such misconduct.” Politico, The Hill, Wall Street Journal
Senate approves new Russia sanctions: The Senate on Wednesday voted almost unanimously to enact new sanctions against Russia. The measure, which passed 97-2, also establishes a congressional review process that would make any presidential efforts to ease sanctions more difficult. Lawmakers have been pushing for the Senate to adopt new Russia sanctions in response to the Kremlin’s interference in the 2016 election, and have been concerned about  reports that the Trump administration is considering easing sanctions on Moscow. “The United States of America needs to send a strong message to Vladimir Putin and any other aggressor that we will not tolerate attacks on our democracy,” Senator John McCain said following the vote. CNN, New York Times
Trump pushes back on claims that travel ban is set to expire: The Trump administration on Wednesday moved to amend the start date of its proposed 90-day travel ban on people entering the United States from six Muslim-majority countries in a bid to keep its legal battle alive. The amendment is aimed at preventing the administration's legal case at the Supreme Court from becoming moot on grounds that parts of the executive order have expired. The administration is instructing the secretary of state, the attorney general, the secretary of homeland security, and the director of national intelligence to implement the ban 72 hours after all applicable court injunctions are lifted or stayed. Associated Press, Politico, Reuters
Company lost secret 2014 fight over expansion of NSA surveillance: An American communications company in 2014 pushed back against an “expansion” of the NSA’s surveillance program, but was ordered to comply by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, a newly declassified ruling from 2014 shows. The declassified portions of the ruling did not say what the expansion was or the legal arguments the anonymous company had made.  Congress is beginning to debate whether to authorize the warrantless surveillance program, and if so, whether to impose new restrictions on it. New York Times

At least 20 people were held hostage in a restaurant in Somalia’s capital of Mogadishu by al-Shabaab militants on Wednesday night after a car rigged with explosives rammed into a hotel next to the restaurant, killing at least 19 people. District police chief Abdi Bashir said Somali security forces took back control of the restaurant at midnight and killed five of the gunmen inside. On Thursday, al-Shabaab claimed responsibility for the attack and said it killed more than 20 people, including soldiers and government workers. The militant group has launched a series of deadly attacks on Mogadishu in recent months. Reuters, BBC News, USAToday
U.S. troops are on the ground near Marawi City in the southern Philippines but are not involved in fighting ISIS militants, a Philippines military spokesman said on Wednesday. The Philippines military had previously said the U.S. was providing technical assistance to end the occupation of parts of Marawi City  but had no boots on the ground. The statement was the first official confirmation of the American military presence in Marawi. U.S. officials have framed the assistance as part of a long-term counterterrorism project. The U.S. military said Monday that the Special Forces were providing “security assistance and training” in the areas of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance. Reuters, New York Times
New York Times: How ISIS Grew in the Philippines
U.S.-led airstrikes in Syria killed hundreds of civilians, UN panel says: Airstrikes by the U.S.-led coalition against ISIS have killed hundreds of civilians around Raqqa, Syria and left 160,000 people displaced, a UN panel said on Wednesday. The panel said airstrikes had escalated as the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces moved recently to retake Raqqa from ISIS. The report echoed fears among humanitarian agencies over the toll in civilian lives resulting from U.S. efforts to push ISIS out of Syria and Iraq. New York Times
ISIS claims it has taken bin Laden’s Afghan hideout of Tora Bora: ISIS said its fighters have captured Osama bin Laden’s Tora Bora mountain hideout in eastern Afghanistan. However, the Taliban dismissed the claim, saying the group remains in control of the cave complex. The Taliban said it had pushed ISIS back from some territory that its militants had taken in the area. Associated Press

Qatar buys F-15 fighter planes in $12 billion U.S. deal: A Qatari official said Wednesday that a $12 billion deal to buy Boeing F-15 U.S. fighter jets shows that the ongoing rift between Doha and other Gulf countries has not affected the U.S.-Qatar relationship. The sale, which was finalized at a meeting in Washington between Defense Secretary James Mattis and his Qatari counterpart, comes days after President Trump accused Qatar of funding terrorism “at a very high level.” Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu visited Qatar on Wednesday in a continued effort to repair the diplomatic rift in the Gulf. He is expected to arrive in Kuwait on Thursday to continue mediating the conflict. BBC News, New York Times, Reuters
The Middle East’s crisis factory: “Like Europe in 1914, the Middle East stands precariously at the edge of conflict. The history of the dictatorship-plagued region has shown that there is no such thing as a short and decisive war,” Iyad el-Baghdadi and Maryam Nayeb Yazdi writes in Foreign Policy. “If the current posturing transforms into an open regional war, the conflict will be neither brief nor conclusive. And the explosion of instability in the heart of the world’s most energy-rich region will send global economies into shock, create more opportunities for terrorists, necessitate further foreign interventions, spark new waves of refugees, and make the entire world less safe, less stable, and less prosperous.”
How Iran fights the Islamic State: “Iran’s extensive and multilayered counterterrorism program was successful in preventing an attack within Iran’s borders and against Iranian civilians. Until last week’s attack,” Dina Esfandiary writes in the Washington Post. “The attack, a boon for the Islamic State’s morale, will make Rouhani’s goal of engagement with Gulf Arab neighbors more difficult, but — given its limited resources — will not see Tehran significantly increasing its efforts in neighboring Iraq and Syria.”
Consolidating the terrorist watchlisting bureaucracy: “Although the United States has made great strides since the time of the September 11, 2001 attacks, when a dozen overlapping and incompatible terrorist watchlists were in use, significant room for improvement remains,” Walter Haydock writes in Lawfare. “Consolidating watchlisting and screening functions in the DHS is a logical move that will remove unnecessary steps in the process...Furthermore, screening travelers for terrorist ties is a natural extension of the Department’s core border security mission, while it is a distraction from the FBI’s traditional focus on criminal and national security investigations.”
Jeff Sessions and the trail of unanswered questions: “If there was an organizing principle in Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Tuesday—which was by turns dismissive, incoherent, evasive, and shameful—it was that certain people are owed deference, and certain others are not,” Amy Davidson writes in The New Yorker. “The hearing made it clear that the lodestone for Sessions is his abject deferral to what he sees as President Donald Trump’s ‘rights’ but which might better be described as Trump’s demands, desires, and whims.”

For cutting-edge analysis of the geopolitical events shaping global affairs, read today’s TSG IntelBrief: An Attack on a U.S. Congressman

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