The Soufan Group Morning Breif


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THURSDAY, AUGUST 31, 2017
PENTAGON SAYS 11,000 TROOPS IN AFGHANISTAN, MORE THAN PREVIOUSLY DISCLOSED

The Pentagon said Wednesday that 11,000 U.S. troops are serving in Afghanistan, thousands more than it has previously stated. The announcement, which came after U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis expressed frustration with the method of counting U.S. troops in conflict zones, did not represent an increase in troops in Afghanistan. The Pentagon said previously that there were roughly 8,400 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, under a cap set during President Barack Obama’s administration. Previously disclosed troop numbers did not reflect the extent of the U.S. commitment on the ground, as commanders sometimes brought in forces temporarily to get around the cap. Reuters, Associated Press

Mattis has said that he will wait for a complete count of U.S. troops in Afghanistan before making a decision on how many additional troops to send to the country. “The Secretary has determined we must simplify our accounting methodology and improve the public's understanding of America's military commitment in Afghanistan,” Chief Pentagon Spokesperson Dana White said. White said the military is also reviewing how it accounts for troops in Syria and Iraq but said that process is ongoing. CNN, Politico

Meanwhile on Wednesday, Pakistan’s National Assembly passed a resolution strongly denouncing President Donald Trump’s new Afghanistan policy and calling his statements on Pakistan “hostile and threatening.” At the announcement of his Afghanistan policy on August 21, President Trump criticized what he called “Pakistan’s safe havens for terrorist organisations, the Taliban, and other groups that pose a threat to the region and beyond.” Voice of America, Al Jazeera
Related:
New York Times: U.S. Gives Military Assistance to Pakistan, With Strings Attached
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MUELLER, NEW YORK ATTORNEY COOPERATING ON MANAFORT PROBE
Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s team is working with New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman on its investigation into President Donald Trump’s former campaign manager Paul Manafort and his financial transactions. Mueller’s team and Schneiderman’s aides have reportedly shared evidence and talked frequently about a potential case in recent weeks. The state-wide investigation could help Mueller in the larger probe into alleged ties between the Trump campaign and Russian meddling in the 2016 election. CNN reported on Tuesday that Mueller had issued subpoenas to an attorney who formerly represented Manafort and to a Manafort spokesman. Politico, CNN, Reuters, The Hill

TRUMP LAWYER DENIES RUSSIA COLLUSION
In an eight-page letter to the House Intelligence Committee, President Trump’s longtime lawyer Michael D. Cohen rebutted a dossier alleging that he has deep ties to Russian officials. “We have not uncovered a single document that would in any way corroborate the dossier’s allegations regarding Mr. Cohen, nor do we believe that any such document exists,” wrote Cohen’s lawyer. New York Times

Meanwhile, on Wednesday, a spokesman for Russian President Vladi­mir Putin confirmed that he had received a request for assistance from Cohen on a stalled Trump Tower real estate project in Moscow, but said that the Kremlin did not respond to the letter. “I confirm that among a number of emails one from Mr. Michael Cohen came to us. This indeed happened. But as far as we don’t respond to business topics, this is not our job, we did not send a response,” said Dmitry Peskov said. Cohen described the stalled deal to congressional investigators as a licensing project between Trump and a Moscow-based developer. Washington Post

Reality Winner moves to suppress statements to police: Reality Winner, an NSA contractor accused of leaking classified information to the media, has moved to suppress her statements to law enforcement. In a motion to suppress filed in U.S. District Court Tuesday, attorneys for Winner argued that the defendant was not read her Miranda rights before being interrogated in June. “Winner was never told she was free to leave, nor was she advised as to her arrest status; indeed, when she specifically asked whether she was under arrest, the agents told her they did not know the answer to that ‘yet,’” the filing read. Federal prosecutors say Winner admitted to FBI agents that she had shared a classified NSA report detailing Russian efforts to influence the 2016 presidential election with The Intercept. The Hill

With departure of top lawyer, State Department exodus continues: A senior State Department lawyer, Todd Buchwald, will step down in the coming weeks, following the exodus of three other top career diplomats last week from the Department. The departures have reinforced concerns about the State Department’s ability to retain some of its most experienced and senior diplomats and lawyers amid concern that the Trump administration is diminishing the standing of U.S. diplomacy. Buchwald’s departure comes weeks after the State Department decided to downgrade the Office of Global Criminal Justice, which he led from December 2015 through the end of July 2017. After being forced from that job, he was reassigned to the Office of the Legal Advisor, where he had previously worked for most of his career at the State Department. Foreign Policy

Senators press agency heads for Trump-mandated cyber reports: The leaders of a key Senate committee are pressing federal department heads for reports on their international cybersecurity priorities mandated by an executive order signed by President Trump in May. Senators Ron Johnson (R-WI) and Claire McCaskill (D-MO), chairman and ranking member of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, wrote to the State Department, Pentagon, and other agencies this week looking for respective reports related to international cyber cooperation that were due to the White House on June 23.  The committee leaders signaled that the reports would factor into their oversight of federal agencies’ cybersecurity efforts. The Hill

Democratic senator requests info from DOE, FBI on Trump appointee’s hacking claim: Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) is seeking information from the FBI and the Department of Energy about a Trump administration appointee who says there is an ongoing federal investigation into “cyber attacks and Internet crimes” committed against him. William Bradford, the administration’s appointee to run the Energy Department’s Office of Indian Energy, has said that inflammatory comments he appeared to have made on an online service were the result of hacking. In a letter to the Department of Energy’s general counsel, Wyden asked whether the office “has been made aware of any cyberattacks against Mr. Bradford” and what steps it has taken “to ensure that these activities have not compromised his ability to perform the duties demanded by his office.” CNN

Accused Al Qaeda member objects to starting terrorism trial the day after 9/11: A suspected high-ranking Al Qaeda member says it is not fair to start his terrorism trial the day after 9/11. Muhanad Mahmoud Al Farekh’s lawyers are hoping to push back his September 12 trial by more than a month. “Starting this case the day after the emotional September 11 remembrances will guarantee a jury tainted by the very nature of this prosecution, i.e., aid to the organization responsible for the 9/11 attack,” his lawyers argued in papers filed Tuesday. New York Daily News


U.S.-LED STRIKES IN SYRIA BLOCK ISIS MILITANTS LEAVING LEBANON
U.S. warplanes on Wednesday blocked a convoy of hundreds of ISIS fighters who were heading to eastern Syria under the terms of a widely criticized deal brokered by Hezbollah in Lebanon. The 310 fighters were traveling to the Iraqi-Syrian border in a convoy of buses under a deal negotiated by Hezbollah, the Lebanese army, and the Syrian government. The deal was reached on Monday for 670 ISIS fighters and their relatives to withdraw from a besieged enclave on the Lebanese-Syrian border. Washington Post, BBC News

The U.S. coalition said it did not hit the convoy but instead “cratered” a road in east Syria and bombed ISIS vehicles nearby. “The coalition is not a party to the agreement between Lebanese Hezbollah and ISIS,” Pentagon spokesman Eric Pahon said, adding that “the coalition is monitoring the movement of these fighters in real-time” and “will take action against ISIS whenever and wherever we are able to.” CNN, New York Times

On Thursday, a commander in the pro-Syrian government military alliance said the stalled ISIS convoy will travel north to government-held Sukhna before crossing towards the Deir Ezzor region, which is held by ISIS. Reuters

MATTIS SAYS U.S. NOT OUT OF DIPLOMATIC SOLUTIONS WITH NORTH KOREA
U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis said Wednesday that the U.S. is not abandoning diplomatic efforts with North Korea, just hours after President Donald Trump said on Twitter that talking with Pyongyang “is not the answer.” At a meeting with his South Korean counterpart, Mattis told reporters that the U.S. is “never out of diplomatic solutions.” He added that he and South Korean Defense Minister Song Young-Moo and “share a responsibility to provide for the protection of our nations, our populations, and our interests.” The remarks by Trump and Mattis came after after North Korea launched a ballistic missile over northern Japan early Tuesday and warned that it was the first step in a “Pacific operation.” Reuters, CBS News, Washington Post

On Thursday, the U.S. flew some of its most advanced warplanes, including two nuclear-capable bombers, to South Korea for bombing drills intended as a show of force against North Korea. Two U.S. B-1B bombers and four F-35 fighters participated in training with South Korean F-15 fighter jets and simulated precision strikes against the North's “core facilities.” NBC News
Related:
Associated Press: Russia Warns U.S. Against New Sanctions on North Korea
USA Today: Shooting Down a North Korean Missile Test May Not Be Practical. Here’s why
BBC News: North Korea: What are the Military Options?
New York Times: After Missile Tests, North and South Korea Wage War of Pictures
CBS News: North Korean Prison Camps Exposed by State Department

Afghan officials deny being in talks with Taliban leaders: Afghan officials on Wednesday denied being in regular talks with Taliban leaders, in response to an Associated Press report that Afghanistan’s intelligence chief speaks by telephone with Taliban nearly every day. National Security Adviser Mohammed Haneef Atmar issued a statement saying the Afghan government seeks peace but that all negotiations with the Taliban are handled by the High Peace Council. In a separate statement, Afghanistan’s intelligence service denied its chief had contacts with Taliban leaders. The Associated Press report was based documents describing conversations between Afghan officials and the Taliban leadership in both Pakistan and Qatar. Associated Press

U.S. troops risk inflaming clan conflict after deadly Somalia raid: A raid involving U.S. troops in Somalia has caused a rift between the U.S.-backed government and a powerful clan that says innocent farmers were massacred. U.S. Africa Command acknowledged that U.S. forces participated in a ground operation in support of Somali troops in the village of Bariire last week and said it is investigating reports of civilian deaths. Residents from the Habar Gidir clan, a powerful group spread across south central Somalia, said some villagers had weapons, but only to protect themselves from a rival clan. They said the villagers had nothing to do with militants, who had been driven away before the government forces and U.S. troops launched their raid on Friday. Reuters


UK government expands Nigerian aid package to help fight Boko Haram: The United Kingdom reinforced its commitment to Nigeria’s fight against Boko Haram on Wednesday following a trip by Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson to northeast Nigeria. The £200 million ($259 million), five-year emergency assistance package will focus on counterterrorism training, military support, and additional humanitarian aid. During his visit, Johnson reaffirmed the United Kingdom’s commitment to supporting Nigeria’s military counterterrorism units to eradicate Boko Haram’s terror tactics. To date, the British government has provided military training to 28,000 Nigerian troops and over 40 UK military personnel have been deployed to Nigeria long-term. CNN, The Guardian

Syrian terror suspect kills self in Hamburg jail: German officials say a Syrian man being held on suspicion of fighting for an extremist group in his homeland has hanged himself in a Hamburg jail cell. Hamburg’s state justice ministry said the man’s body was found in his cell during a routine check on Wednesday morning. The man, identified only as Abdullah K., was arrested in June along with three brothers. They were accused of membership in a terrorist organization for fighting for the Nusra Front in the northern Syrian city of Ras al-Ayn beginning in late 2012. Associated Press

Evacuation planned in Frankfurt after British WWII bomb found: Tens of thousands of German residents in Frankfurt are being told to evacuate by Sunday morning for authorities to defuse a World War II-era bomb. A Frankfurt police spokesperson said as many as 70,000 people could be affected, which would make it Germany's largest evacuation since World War II. The device, a British bomb, was found during work on a construction site on Tuesday, according to the police. They said there is no danger to the public but are evacuating the area as a precaution. NPR, CNN
TOP OP-EDS
Why Kim Jong Un isn’t afraid of Donald Trump: “Most Americans think North Korea is a crazy place, led by a crazy man bent on global destruction. This view, of course, is almost completely wrong and explains in part why the current public discussion about what to do with a nuclear North Korea is so unsatisfying,” Jon Wolfsthal writes in Politico. “Far from crazy, Kim Jong Un has been methodical and careful enough in advancing his nuclear and missile programs to suggest that he is deterred by America’s overwhelming military capabilities, and at the very least is not eager to spark a military conflict—at least not yet.”

The North Korean threat beyond ICBMs: “Trump needs to send Kim a clear message, with an identical copy delivered to China’s president Xi Jinping: If any nuclear bomb of North Korean origin were to explode on American soil or that of an American ally, the United States will respond as though North Korea itself had hit the United States with a nuclear-tipped ICBM,” Graham Allison writes in The Atlantic. “While Americans can hope that the current confrontation will succeed in stopping further ICBM and nuclear tests, even if this succeeds, the United States will be left trying to live with the clear and present danger posed by a nuclear North Korea.”

Trump’s next self-inflicted crisis is a nuclear Iran: “If we abandon the JCPOA, the choice belongs to Tehran. Iran can do everything that North Korea is already doing if it wants. And I worry that, sooner or later, Tehran will,” Jeffrey Lewis writes in Foreign Policy. “So I am telling you now: If you like North Korea’s nuclear-armed ICBM, you are going to love walking away from the Iran deal.”

Washington remains united behind NATO: “I was nominated as United States ambassador to NATO by President Trump in late June. As I made my rounds of congressional offices before my confirmation hearing, I found near unanimity from Republicans and Democrats alike on NATO’s future,” Kay Bailey Hutchison writes in the New York Times. “There is a strong consensus that a renaissance of NATO offers the best hope to unite our Western allies against threats including intolerable Russian aggression in Ukraine, international terrorism, nuclear and missile capacities of rogue nations, and efforts to wipe out religious and individual freedoms around the globe.”
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