The Soufan Group Morning Brief

The Soufan Group Morning Brief, June 8, 2017

Former FBI Director James Comey will testify this morning before the Senate Intelligence Committee. In a seven-page prepared statement released on Wednesday, Comey detailed conversations he had with President Donald Trump between January and May, when he was fired. Comey said Trump told him “I need loyalty, I expect loyalty” during a private dinner at the White House in January. Comey said he felt the the dinner “was, at least in part, an effort to have me ask for my job and create some sort of patronage relationship. That concerned me greatly, given the FBI’s traditionally independent status in the executive branch.” Comey also said that Trump asked him to drop FBI investigations into former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn’s calls with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak during the presidential transition. “I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go,” Trump said according to Comey’s testimony. New York Times, NPR, Washington Post, CNN
Some legal experts said Comey’s testimony could strengthen an impeachment case against President Trump built on obstruction of justice. If Comey’s testimony suggests that Trump’s actions constituted obstruction, it could shift the focus of congressional investigations on Russian meddling in the 2016 election and the involvement of Trump personnel from intelligence matters, overseen by the House and Senate Intelligence Committees, to legal and criminal matters, overseen by the House and Senate Judiciary Committees. Washington Post, Reuters, CNN
Politico: Highlights from Comey’s Statement on Trump and Russia
CNN: Here’s the Single most Telling Line in James Comey's Trump Testimony
BBC: Four Takeaways from James Comey's Testimony
New York Times: Democrats Once Had Only Contempt for James Comey. But That Was Then.

Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats and director of the National Security Agency Admiral Michael S. Rogers testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Wednesday, where they refused to answer senators’ questions about whether President Trump asked them to intervene in the FBI investigation into Russian election interference. Coats and Rogers said they had never felt “pressured” by the White House to do anything improper but refused to discuss specifics of conversations with President Trump. This drew sharp criticism from a number of senators. “At no time should you be in a position where you come to Congress without an answer,” committee chairman Senator Richard M. Burr said. “The requirements of our oversight duties and your agencies demand it.” Washington Post, Politico, CNN, New York Times
Coats also told the committee that Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which allows for the collection of digital communications of foreigners overseas and is set to expire at the end of the year, should be permanently reauthorized. Coats said Section 702 is necessary to keep the United States safe from national security threats. Rogers said the NSA would not have been able to “recreate the insights” on Russia's interference in the 2016 election without Section 702. Reuters, Washington Examiner
President Trump on Wednesday announced that he had selected Christopher Wray to be the new director of the FBI. Wray oversaw the Justice Department’s criminal division under President George W. Bush as a former assistant attorney general. He is likely to allay the concerns of FBI agents who worried that Trump might try to weaken or politicize the FBI. “I know that he will again serve his country as a fierce guardian of the law and model of integrity once the Senate confirms him to lead the FBI,” Mr. Trump said. Reuters, Washington Post, New York Times
However, some have criticized the pick. After leaving the Justice Department, Wray represented Trump ally Republican New Jersey Governor Chris Christie in the so-called Bridgegate scandal. “Christopher Wray’s firm’s legal work for the Trump family, his history of partisan activity, as well as his history of defending Trump’s transition director during a criminal scandal makes us question his ability to lead the FBI,” the American Civil Liberties Union said.
The ACLU also called on senators to question Wray about what he knew about abuses of detainees in American custody in Iraq and Afghanistan and at Guantánamo Bay when he was at the Justice Department. Documents show he was notified about the death of a detainee at Abu Ghraib prison in 2004 and was aware of discussions on the legality of military interrogation techniques in 2003. Miami Herald, New York Times
LA Times: Selection of FBI director Wasn’t Simple in Trump’s Chaotic White House
Trump aides tell him to keep Sessions as attorney general: President Trump has no intention of firing Attorney General Jeff Sessions, despite his frustration with Sessions for the handling of the administration’s travel ban and for recusing himself from the Russia probe. Sessions had offered to resign, which Trump refused. He is now being advised to keep Sessions in his position, according to White House officials. Reuters, Bloomberg
Former Guantanamo detainee sues creators of interrogation tactics: Attorneys for a detainee at Guantanamo Bay, Abu Zubaydah, are suing the psychologists who created the CIA’s harsh interrogation techniques used in the war on terror. The suit details what it describes as the torture of Abu Zubaydah, who was held in a secret CIA interrogation facility in Poland, from 2002 to 2003. It seeks to compel the psychologists, James Elmer Mitchell and John “Bruce” Jessen, to provide information to Polish officials who are investigating the former CIA site in the country. Associated Press
Lawyers for Benghazi suspect argue statements he made at sea aren’t valid: Lawyers for Ahmed Abu Khatallah, the Libyan militia leader accused of leading the 2012 Benghazi terrorist attack that killed U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens, are challenging the legality of alleged statements Khatallah made to FBI agents during his 13-day voyage by boat from Libya to the United States. In final legal arguments on Tuesday, Khatallah’s lawyers called his capture “a legal failure.” They said the government purposefully planned a long sea voyage from Libya to have more time for interrogation and argue that any waivers he gave to his Miranda rights were invalid. Buzzfeed
Reality Winner to plead not guilty:
Reality Winner, the government contractor accused of leaking a top-secret NSA report to The Intercept, plans to enter a plea of not guilty, according to her lawyer. She hopes to be released on bond today. NPR, The Hill
Former Metro Access driver found guilty of supporting ISIS: Mohamad Khweis, who quit his job as a Metro Access bus driver in Virginia in 2015 and traveled to ISIS territory, has been found guilty of supporting terrorism. “Khweis voluntarily chose to join the ranks of a designated foreign terrorist organization, and that is a federal crime, even if you get scared and decide to leave,” Dana Boente, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, said. Washington Post

Al Shabaab militants captured a town in Somalia’s semi-autonomous Puntland region on Thursday, killing at least 61 soldiers in the fighting. “Al Shabaab attacked Af Urur town this morning. There were few soldiers there and thus al Shabaab captured the town. It is difficult to know the casualties because the telecommunications were cut off,” Bari region governor Yusuf Mohamed said. “The number [of casualties] could rise since the operation is still underway,” Abdiasis Abu Musab, Al Shabaab’s military spokesman said in a statement. Musab said their fighters had also seized weapons and vehicles from the base. Reuters
U.S. attack on Raqqa to accelerate: U.S.-backed Syrian forces aiming to oust ISIS from Raqqa in Syria captured a ruined fortress on the edge of the city on Wednesday. A U.S. coalition official said the attack was set to accelerate. Meanwhile, Hezbollah warned Wednesday that the Syrian government’s allies would strike at American positions inside Syria if they cross any “red lines.” Reuters, Associated Press
Boko Haram fighters attack Nigerian town: Suspected Boko Haram fighters attacked the city of Maiduguri in northeast Nigeria on Wednesday, marking the militant group’s most serious assault on the regional capital in a year and a half. The raid comes six months after President Muhammadu Buhari said Boko Haram had “technically” been defeated by a military campaign that had pushed jihadists into the remote Sambisa forest near the border with Cameroon. Associated Press, Reuters
North Korea fires suspected land-to-ship missiles:
North Korea fired what appeared to be several land-to-ship missiles off its east coast on Thursday, South Korea’s military said. The incident came a day after the South postponed full deployment of a controversial U.S. anti-missile system designed to deter a North Korean attack and less than a week after the UN Security Council passed fresh sanctions on the country. Reuters

Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps has accused Saudi Arabia of being behind a double attack in Tehran on Wednesday that left at least 13 people dead. A statement by the IRGC said that the claim of responsibility for the attack by ISIS “proves” that Saudi Arabia was involved in the attack. Iran’s Intelligence Ministry said the perpetrators had previously fought for ISIS and called them “long affiliated with the Wahhabi,” referencing Saudi Arabia but stopping short of directly blaming the kingdom. Saudi Arabia denied any involvement in the attacks. The incident adds to tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran over a break in relations between a Saudi-led block of the Gulf Cooperation Council and Qatar, which Riyadh accuses of backing Tehran. Associated Press, Washington Post, Bloomberg, Reuters, Al Jazeera
Washington Post: Trump’s Pressure on Iran May be Stoking Sectarian Tensions in Mideast
Wall Street Journal: Islamic State Stakes Global Claims as Territory Shrinks
PBS Newshour: How the ISIS Attack on Iran May Escalate Regional Conflict
Turkey brought forward troop deployment to Qatar on Wednesday and pledged to provide crucial food and water supplies to Doha after a break in relations between the Gulf country and its neighbors. New legislation also allows the Turkish Army to conduct joint military exercises and train Qatari counterparts. The moves followed a speech by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in which he criticized the countries that broke relations with Qatar, including Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Egypt, and Yemen. President Trump has offered to host a conciliatory meeting in the White House to address the diplomatic crisis. Reuters, Bloomberg, New York Times
The Guardian: Kuwait Steps Up Efforts to End Qatar Blockade
Britain heads to the polls: Britain votes today in a general election campaign after a recent spate of deadly terror attacks. Prime Minister Theresa May is on course to increase her majority in parliament, opinion polls showed on Wednesday, suggesting her gamble to call the vote to bolster her position in Brexit negotiations will pay off. The Guardian, BBC, Reuters
Three arrested in connection with London Bridge attack: Armed police arrested three people on Wednesday night east London in connection with the London Bridge terror attack. “Officers from the Met’s Counter Terrorism Command, supported by firearms officers, arrested two men on a street in Ilford, a third was arrested after warrant was carried out at a residential address in Ilford,” London Metropolitan Police said in a statement. ABC News, The Guardian
France creates counterterrorism task force: France created a new counterterrorism task force on Wednesday to bring together all of its intelligence services to coordinate responses to attacks. The decision by French President Emmanuel Macron comes a day after an Algerian student assaulted police officers outside Notre Dame cathedral. The task force, which falls directly under the president’s authority, will include about 20 individuals representing France’s various security services and operate 24 hours, seven days a week. Reuters, Voice of America
Initial Comments on James Comey’s Written Testimony: “Comey is describing here conduct that a society committed to the rule of law simply cannot accept in a president,” Benjamin Wittes writes in Lawfare. “This document is about a far more important question to the preservation of liberty in a society based on legal norms and rules: the abuse of the core functions of the presidency. It’s about whether we can trust the President—not the President in the abstract, but the particular embodiment of the presidency in the person of Donald J. Trump—to supervise the law enforcement apparatus of the United States in fashion consistent with his oath of office. I challenge anyone to read this document and come away with a confidently affirmative answer to that question.”
Trump’s Russia scandal just got a lot more like Watergate: “As the Russia scandal swirls around the White House, it’s easy to make facile comparisons to Watergate, the worst presidential scandal in American history. The Russia scandal is not Watergate, at least not yet,” Paul Waldman writes in the Washington Post. “So while we’re some distance away from the Russia scandal being as bad as Watergate, we also can’t ignore the parallels. In particular — and this can’t be emphasized enough — it now appears Trump may have attempted to employ intelligence officials and agencies in an effort to quash a criminal investigation of members of his campaign being conducted by the FBI. This is very close to the thing for which Richard Nixon was about to be impeached when he resigned.”
What the Islamic State Wants in Attacking Iran: “Presuming the Islamic State’s claim of responsibility for today’s attack is authentic, why did it wait three years to carry out a strike if it had been free to do so since 2014? Absent internal testimony from the organization, there are several ways to think about the timing,” Will McCants writes in Foreign Policy. “Whatever the case may be, if the claim proves true, the Islamic State will have succeeded where so many other Sunni jihadi groups have failed. It has struck at the heart of the hated theocracy of ‘Safavids,”’as the group describes Iran. At a time when the Islamic State’s caliphate is crumbling and its morale flagging, the strike won’t reverse its ill-fortunes — Iran may decide to hasten the demise of the Islamic State in response. But it is a vital shot in the arm for the group as it transitions from a proto-state to an insurgency.”
Jared Kushner’s Not-So-Secret Channel to Putin: “The United States government is aware of the special role Russian banks play in advancing Moscow’s espionage efforts and foreign policy,” Evelyn N. Farkas writes in the New York Times. “Russian banks conduct legitimate business with law-abiding companies around the world, including American banks. But their close ties to the Russian government make Mr. Kushner’s meeting with Mr. Gorkov worthy of deeper scrutiny. Mr. Gorkov is part of the Putin power vertical. When Mr. Kushner spoke to him, he was also talking to the Kremlin, and we should know what they discussed.”

For cutting-edge analysis of the geopolitical events shaping global affairs, read today’s TSG IntelBrief:  The Islamic State Strikes Iran

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