The Soufan Group Morning Brief


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WEDNESDAY, JULY 26, 2017
HOUSE APPROVES NEW RUSSIA SANCTIONS, DEFYING TRUMP
The House of Representatives on Tuesday voted overwhelmingly to advance new financial sanctions against Russian officials, delivering a foreign-policy brushback to President Trump by limiting his ability to waive many of the penalties. Included in the package, which passed 419 to 3, are new measures targeting key Russian officials in retaliation for that country’s alleged interference in the 2016 presidential election, as well as sanctions against Iran and North Korea in response to those nations’ weapons programs.

It was unclear how quickly the bill would make its way to the White House for Trump to sign into law or veto. The revised bill still must be passed by the Senate, though that chamber overwhelmingly passed a similar bill earlier this month by a vote of 98-2. The White House said the president had not yet decided whether he would sign the measure. Aides to President Trump have previously suggested that the bill goes too far in binding the president’s hands in dealing with Moscow. But rejecting the bill would carry a risk that his veto could be overridden by lawmakers. Reuters, Washington Post, Politico
STANDOFF BETWEEN TRUMP AND SESSIONS ESCALATES
The public standoff between the president and the attorney general took another strange turn Tuesday as President Trump again escalated his verbal attacks on Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who was urged by fellow conservatives to stand his ground. Trump was asked at a Rose Garden news conference if he would fire the attorney general, who angered the president by recusing himself from the criminal probe into possible connections between the Trump campaign and Russia.

“We’ll see what happens,’’ said Trump—a potentially ominous choice of phrase, considering the president used the same expression when talking about FBI Director James B. Comey before he was fired. “I’m disappointed in the attorney general,’’ Trump said. “If he was going to recuse himself, he should have told me prior to taking office, and I would have picked somebody else. It’s a bad thing not just for the president, but also for the presidency. I think it’s unfair to the presidency.”

Sessions has reportedly sent word to the White House that he has no plans to resign and wants to stay as attorney general. But he hasn’t told Trump that himself. The two men aren’t currently speaking, according to reports. Politico, Washington Post

CIA TORTURE CONTRACTORS: WE’RE LIKE THOSE WHO MADE GAS FOR THE NAZIS
Two contact psychologists for the CIA who played an integral role in designing the CIA’s post-9/11 torture program have settled on a novel legal defense in a civil suit brought by survivors of the CIA torture program. Ahead of a key court date on Friday, lawyers for James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen portray the two contract psychologists as analogous to those who made the Zyklon B gas used to murder Jews and others in Nazi concentration camps. Mitchell and Jessen’s lawyers note in a recent filing that in a British military court in 1946, the Zyklon manufacturing company Tesch & Stabenow’s “first gassing technician” was ultimately acquitted. Although the technician, Joachim Drohsin, played “an integral part of the supply and use of the poison gas,” the British court wrote, he was “without influence” and was found not guilty.

“Here,” Mitchell and Jessen’s attorneys argue, “it is undisputed that, as independent contractors serving on a larger interrogation team, Defendants lacked authority to ‘control, prevent or modify’ the CIA’s decision to use [torture] on detainees.” Daily Beast

JUSTICE DEPT. NOMINEE WORKED FOR RUSSIA BANK DURING TRUMP INQUIRY
President Trump’s nominee to lead the Justice Department’s criminal division, Brian Benczkowski, said on Tuesday that he helped Russia’s Alfa Bank investigate whether its computer servers contacted the Trump Organization. Benczkowski had told the Senate Judiciary Committee last week that he represented Alfa Bank, which is one of Russia’s largest financial institutions and whose owners have ties to President Vladimir Putin. On Tuesday, as Benczkowski came before the panel for his confirmation hearing, he acknowledged that his work for Alfa Bank directly touched on suspicions related to the bank in connection with the Trump-Russia affair, and that he agreed to represent the back in March despite knowing that he might be nominated for a job in the Trump administration. New York Times

Court orders Uzbek terror suspect detained ahead of trial: An appellate court has reversed a lower court’s ruling and ordered Jamshid Muhtorov, an Uzbek terror suspect who has been awaiting trial for more than five years, to be detained until his trial, which is expected to begin early next year. Denver Post, Associated Press

Manafort and Kushner meet with congressional panels: Paul Manafort and Jared Kushner met with congressional investigators on Tuesday to provide information about a June 2016 meeting they attended  with a Russian lawyer, and plans are underway for Manafort to speak soon to another Senate committee. The Senate Judiciary Committee had issued a subpoena on Tuesday to compel Manafort, Trump’s former campaign chairman, to testify in its Russia probe. But it has since dropped the subpoena, according to reports, now that there are plans for Manafort to meet with committee investigators. Politico
Related:
FiveThirtyEight: Why Russia Revelations Never Seem to Change Anything

The Americans fighting ISIS in Syria: At least three American volunteers have died fighting with U.S.-backed Kurdish forces in Syria this month, relatives and the Kurdish militias say, shining a spotlight on a little-known underground pipeline of U.S. citizens who leave their lives and families behind to oppose ISIS in battle. NBC News

Obama-era NSA spying: Newly declassified government memos suggest that the NSA and FBI violated specific civil liberty protections during the Obama years by improperly searching and disseminating raw intelligence on Americans or failing to promptly delete unauthorized intercepts. Critics say the memos undercut the intelligence community’s claim that it has robust protections for Americans incidentally intercepted under the program. The Hill


NORTH KOREA COULD CROSS ICBM THRESHOLD NEXT YEAR
North Korea will be able to field a reliable, nuclear-capable intercontinental ballistic missile as early as next year, U.S. officials have concluded in a confidential assessment that dramatically shrinks the timeline for when Pyongyang could strike North American cities with atomic weapons. The new assessment by the ­Pentagon’s Defense Intelligence Agency, which shaves a full two years off the consensus forecast for North Korea’s ICBM program, was prompted by recent missile tests showing surprising technical advances by the country’s weapons scientists. Washington Post, New York Times
Related:
Wall Street Journal: China Prepares for Crisis Along North Korea Border

U.S. NAVY FIRES WARNING SHOTS AT IRANIAN SHIP IN PERSIAN GULF
A U.S. Navy patrol boat fired two bursts of machine-gun fire at an Iranian military ship Tuesday as it made an alarmingly fast and close approach in the Persian Gulf, marking the latest aggressive encounter between the two adversaries. The unidentified Iranian Revolutionary Guard vessel got within 150 yards of the USS Thunderbolt and risked a collision, U.S. officials said, before the American patrol boat fired warning shots and quickly ended the encounter. Washington Post, BBC News

Afghanistan’s minerals: President Trump, searching for a reason to keep the United States in Afghanistan after 16 years of war, has latched onto a prospect that tantalized previous administrations: Afghanistan’s vast mineral wealth, which his advisers and Afghan officials have told him could be profitably extracted by Western companies. New York Times

Syrian refugees: In an appearance on Tuesday in the Rose Garden alongside Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, President Trump said that supporting Syrian refugees as close to their home as possible was the best way to help them. Associated Press


Venezuelan leaders accuse Rubio and the CIA of plotting to topple Caracas government: Venezuela’s senior leaders say Sen. Marco Rubio and the CIA have been plotting to topple the government of President Nicolás Maduro. With their country descending into crisis, Foreign Minister Samuel Moncada and Carlos Ron, the chargé d'affaires of the Embassy of Venezuela, accused Rubio and CIA Director Mike Pompeo this week of secretly conspiring against Caracas so that Washington can install new leaders amenable to U.S. interests. Miami Herald
TOP OP-EDS
How to take down Kim Jong Un: “Political change in Pyongyang and the reunification of Korea, as hard as it may be to imagine, is actually much more likely than the denuclearization of the present regime,” writes Tom Malinowski in Politico. “The central aim of our strategy should be to foster conditions that enable this natural, internal process to move faster, while preparing ourselves, our allies and the North Korean people for the challenges we will face when change comes.”

Is a ‘global war on terrorism memorial’ an appropriate tribute? “The proposal for a Global War on Terrorism Memorial on the National Mall in Washington, to honor the country’s post-9/11 war dead, described in Sunday’s Boston Globe, may seem like a no-brainer,” writes Andrew Bacevich in the Boston Globe. “It is, in fact, premature. Before proceeding further, Americans would do well to reflect further on exactly what they propose to memorialize.”

The CIA is entering a danger zone: “If the ghosts who inhabit the walls of the CIA could talk, they would tell Director Mike Pompeo to be careful,” writes David Ignatius in the Washington Post. “The agency is entering a danger zone where a White House in turmoil wants the CIA to take aggressive action overseas but hasn’t developed the clear strategy or political support needed to sustain it.”

On Kaspersky: “Kaspersky Lab is an excellent company with a solid reputation for building good security products,” writes Nicholas Weaver in Lawfare. “But its software should be banned from all governmental computers, defense contractors, and related assets. The problem is a fundamental risk—that of a government-mandated malicious update.”

This is not okay: “We need to recall, once again, what it means to live under the rule of law,” writes the Washington Post in an editorial. “Since Trump’s inauguration six months ago, so many comparisons have been made to ‘banana republics’ that it is almost unfair to bananas. But there is a serious point to be made about the difference between the United States of America and a state ruled by personal whim.”
EDITOR'S PICK
 
SOUFAN GROUP
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