The Soufan Group Morning Brief



National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster has removed Ezra Cohen-Watnick, his senior intelligence director, from his position in the White House. The move came more than four months after he initially tried to remove Cohen-Watnick, who was brought onto the NSC by former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn. In March, McMaster told Cohen-Watnick he was being moved to another position, but the move was blocked by President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and senior advisor Jared Kushner and chief strategist Stephen Bannon. McMaster’s removal of Cohen-Watnick suggests an increase in his influence in the White House and control over his personnel as a result of the arrival of new White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly.

“General McMaster appreciates the good work accomplished in the NSC’s Intelligence directorate under Ezra Cohen’s leadership,” a White House statement said. “He has determined that, at this time, a different set of experiences is best-suited to carrying that work forward.” Cohen-Watnick will reportedly be reassigned to another area of the administration. Earlier this year, he came under scrutiny for his alleged role in providing information to Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA), the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, that members of Trump's team were included in foreign surveillance reports collected by U.S. intelligence. The Atlantic, Washington Post, CNN, Politico

The dismissal follows the removal of the NSC’s top official for the Middle East, Derek Harvey, who had also been appointed by Flynn. Meanwhile, McMaster’s deputy Ricky Waddell recently fired Rich Higgins, a director for strategic planning at the NSC who had produced a memo alleging forces both within and outside of the White House were engaged in a “political warfare” conspiracy against the president using Maoist insurgency tactics. The Atlantic

Secretary of Defense James Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson discussed the prospects for a new war authorization to fight ISIS in a closed-door hearing before Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Wednesday. Senators said the two officials expressed willingness to work with Congress to pass a new Authorization for Use of Military Force. Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA) said he was encouraged by the discussion with Mattis and Tillerson. “They were very open to the idea of working on an authorization, not because they feel like they legally have to have it, but they think for the mission itself it would be good to have Congress engaged in that way,” he said. The U.S. campaign against ISIS relies on Congress’ open-ended 2001 military authorization to fight against al Qaeda and its affiliates after the 9/11 attacks.

Earlier on Wednesday, the State Department said in a letter to the committee chairman Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN) that the Trump administration is not seeking any additional authorization or any revisions to the 2001 authorization. “The United States has sufficient legal authority to prosecute the campaign against al-Qaida and associated forces, including against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria,” the State Department's Bureau of Legislative Affairs wrote. CNN, Reuters, Voice of America

Trump signs Russia sanctions bill: President Donald Trump signed into law Wednesday morning legislation that levies new sanctions against Russia and allows Congress to block the president from easing sanctions in place against Moscow. Congress overwhelmingly approved the legislation last week. While Trump signed the bill, he criticized the measure for including “clearly unconstitutional provisions” and left open the possibility that he may choose not to enforce the legislation as lawmakers intended. Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, meanwhile, called the sanctions tantamount to a “full-scale trade war” and said they demonstrated “utter powerlessness” on the part of the Trump administration. CNN, Reuters, New York Times

Investigators want phone records related to Trump Jr.-Russia meeting: Congressional investigators are seeking to obtain phone records from Donald Trump Jr. related to his meeting with a Russian lawyer ahead of the 2016 election. Trump Jr. was promised damaging information about Hillary Clinton prior to the meeting. Investigators are also reportedly interested in the email accounts of those involved in the meeting, including Jared Kushner and Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort. CBS News

U.S. bans travel to North Korea from September 1, says Americans should leave: The State Department said Wednesday that a ban on travel to North Korea by U.S. passport holders will take effect on September 1 and warned Americans in the country to leave. Journalists and humanitarian workers may apply for exceptions to the ban, the department said. The U.S. government last month said it would bar Americans from traveling to North Korea due to the risk of “long-term detention” there. North Korea will become the only country to which Americans are banned from traveling. Reuters

Judge lifts order that halted 9/11 case at Guantanamo: A U.S. military judge ruled Wednesday that pretrial hearings may resume for five men accused in the 9/11 attacks, after a delay over travel logistics at the Guantanamo Bay detention center was resolved. Army Col. James Pohl lifted his own stay on proceedings issued in July, the latest in a series of procedural delays in the prosecution of the five suspects before a military commission. Pohl said in his ruling that the military agreed to provide a small boat to transport the judges and their staff across Guantanamo Bay, resolving the issue in time for the resumption of hearings on August 21. Associated Press, Miami Herald

Senators seek path forward for new FBI headquarters: In July, the GSA shut down a plan to move the FBI headquarters from the J. Edgar Hoover Building after more than a decade of effort to secure a new building. Frustrated senators on both sides of the aisle say that the decision blindsided them. “The men and women of the FBI, who keep us all safe, deserve an office building that meets their needs,” Sen. John Barrasso (R-WY) said. “The security and efficiency arguments for this are clear. What is not clear is why this project was suddenly halted, why Congress was not notified in advance and what happens now.” Sen. Benjamin Cardin (D-MD) criticized the decision and noted that the GSA had received seven viable development plans from three developers for a new building. Congress has appropriated more than $800 million toward construction and approved the selling of the Hoover Building. Washington Post

President Donald Trump has become increasingly frustrated with his advisers tasked with crafting a new U.S. strategy in Afghanistan. During a July 19 meeting in the White House Situation Room, Trump demanded that his top national security aides provide more information on what one official called “the end-state” in Afghanistan. He also suggested that Defense Secretary James Mattis and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford replace Gen. John Nicholson, the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan. “We aren't winning,” Trump said. Trump’s chief strategy Stephen Bannon also reportedly got into “a shouting match” with National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster over the direction of U.S. policy. CBS News, Reuters

Trump's national security team has been working for months to come up with a new strategy in Afghanistan for the president to approve. Earlier this year, Trump gave Mattis the authority to deploy additional U.S. military forces to Afghanistan. However, Mattis’ plans to deploy an additional 4,000 troops are caught up in the delay surrounding the strategy, officials said. The officials working on the strategy are set to meet today for further discussions. On Wednesday, meanwhile, a suicide bomb attack claimed by the Taliban killed two American troops in Afghanistan as they were traveling in a convoy near the airport in Kandahar. Reuters

Russia announces 'de-escalation zone' north of Syria's city of Homs: Russia's Defense Ministry and Syria’s opposition have agreed to create a new de-escalation zone north of the city of Homs. A ceasefire in the area is set to take effect at noon on Thursday, the Defense Ministry said. Russia, Iran, and Turkey agreed on a plan in May to establish four de-escalation zones in Syria, pressing Bashar al-Assad’s air force to halt flights over the designated areas. Reuters, Voice of America

McMaster stresses threat posed by North Korea missiles: National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster said in an interview with MSNBC that North Korea’s nuclear ambitions present a “grave threat” to the U.S. Just days after the U.S. military detected another intercontinental ballistic missile test conducted by North Korea, McMaster refused to confirm whether North Korea’s missiles are capable of reaching a majority of the U.S. “I'm not going to confirm it. But as I mentioned, really, whether it could reach San Francisco or Pittsburgh or Washington. How much does that matter, right? It's a grave threat,” he said. The Hill, MSNBC

Iranian reactions to new U.S. sanctions: Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei criticized new U.S. sanctions on Tehran signed by President Donald Trump on Wednesday and vowed to would continue Iran’s missile program despite international pressure. “The response to the hostility is to become stronger,” Khamenei said, describing the U.S. government as “the top aggressor” and enemy of Iran. Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister, Sayed Abbas Araqchi, said the new sanctions undermine the Iran nuclear deal signed in 2015 and that Tehran will “show a very clever reaction” to the new sanctions. Earlier this week, Iran said that it complained to the UN Security Council over the U.S. measures. CNN, Associated Press

Italy begins naval mission to help Libya curb migrant flows: Italy began a limited naval mission on Wednesday to help Libya’s coastguard curb migrant flows. An Italian patrol boat entered Libyan waters and headed towards the port of Tripoli within minutes of a vote in Italy’s parliament authorizing the deployment. A second vessel was expected to join it in the coming days. Italy announced the operation last week, saying it had been requested by Libya's UN-backed government. It initially hoped to send six ships into Libyan territorial waters, but the plans had to be scaled back following protests from Tripoli. Reuters

Terror suspect arrested at London Southend Airport: A man has been arrested at London Southend Airport on suspicion of preparation of acts of terrorism. Officers from the Metropolitan Police’s Counter Terrorism Command stopped the 49-year-old on Tuesday using powers under Britain’s Terrorism Act. A spokesperson for Scotland Yard said he was taken to a police station in south London and remains in custody. “Officers also carried out a search at an address in Essex, which is now complete,” he added. BBC News, The Independent
Oh, Wait. Maybe It Was Collusion: “It is our view not only that the Russian government was running some sort of intelligence operation involving the Trump campaign, but also that it is impossible to rule out the possibility of collusion between the two,” John Sipher and Steve Hall write in the New York Times.

How to really turn the screws on North Korea: “President Donald Trump must now make the tough decisions to ensure that his administration will use every tool at its disposal to peacefully denuclearize the Korean Peninsula,” Sen. Cory Gardner (R-CO) writes in CNN. “Every nation of conscience should cut off all finance and trade with North Korea, with a few limited humanitarian exceptions, until such time that Pyongyang is willing to meet its international commitments to peacefully denuclearize.”

Memo to Pence: Prepare to Be Gerald Ford: “The present situation in the White House is unsustainable. The time has come for you to consider the possibility that, as a result, it will not be sustained and that you, as a consequence, have a date with history at some point on your calendar,” Susan Hennessey and Benjamin Wittes write in Foreign Policy. “A vice president staring down the barrel of his boss’s impeachment would be well advised to consider and care about historical perceptions.... [P]art of Ford’s great service to the nation was not just his uncheerful willingness to assume the office, but his ability to do so under conditions in which members of both parties could speak to his honesty and integrity.”

The end of the CIA program in Syria: “Without the cooperation of Jordan and Turkey, the CIA’s support for the Syrian rebels has had little impact,” Fabrice Balanche writes in Foreign Affairs. “Under such conditions, Washington’s support for anti-regime groups was futile. Ending its funding program will not upset the balance of power in Syria. It will, however, help to weaken the morale of the rebellion, accelerating its collapse.”
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