The Soufan Group Morning Brief



Special Counsel Robert Mueller has asked the White House for documents about some of President Donald Trump’s most scrutinized actions since taking office, including the firing of former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn and former FBI Director James Comey. Mueller is also seeking more information about an Oval Office meeting Trump had with Russian officials the day after Comey’s firing, in which he said the former FBI director’s dismissal had relieved “great pressure” on him.

The document request sent to the White House in recent weeks provides the most details to date about the breadth of Mueller’s investigation, and shows that several aspects of his inquiry are focused squarely on Trump’s behavior in the White House. Of the 13 subjects in the document request, four are related to Flynn and three are related to Comey. Based on the request, there is no indication that Mueller is pressing to examine Trump’s personal finances or business dealings — areas the president has said should be off limits. It was not clear whether Mueller has made separate document requests elsewhere to examine those subjects. New York Times, The Guardian

Suspected Russia propagandists on Facebook tried to organize more than a dozen pro-Trump rallies in Florida during last year’s election, The Daily Beast reported. The demonstrations—at least one of which was promoted online by local pro-Trump activists—brought dozens of supporters together. They appear to be the first case of Russian provocateurs successfully mobilizing Americans over Facebook in direct support of Donald Trump.

A Facebook page called “Being Patriotic” and a related Twitter account called “march_for_trump” organized at least four pro-Trump or anti-Hillary Clinton demonstrations rallies. The Being Patriotic Facebook page was closed in August 2017—the same time when Facebook purged accounts secretly operated by a Russian troll factory called Internet Research Agency. U.S. intelligence said Internet Research Agency was financed by “a close Putin ally with ties to Russian intelligence.” Being Patriotic’s posts included scores of pro-Trump or anti-Clinton memes framed and watermarked in the same style as those found on other Facebook pages identified as Russian operations. The Daily Beast, The Verge
Bloomberg: Facebook Faces Growing Pressure Over Russia’s Use in Election
Financial Times: Lawmakers fear Russia’s Facebook meddling continues
Politico: Twitter a Growing Focus of Senate Russia Probe

Senate preparing subpoenas for two FBI officials: Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley said Wednesday he is preparing subpoenas for two FBI officials about the firing of FBI Director James Comey. CNN reported last week that the Justice Department was preventing the individuals from appearing before the Judiciary Committee, saying such an appearance would be unwise without approval from special counsel Robert Mueller. Grassley said a final decision on summoning FBI National Security Division head Carl Ghattas and Comey’s former Chief of Staff James Rybicki would have to await a consultation with the panel’s ranking member, Dianne Feinstein (D-CA). CNN, Politico

Manafort working on Kurdish referendum opposed by the U.S.: Paul Manafort, the former campaign chairman for President Trump who is at the center of investigations into Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election, is working for allies of the leader of Iraq’s Kurdish region to help administer and promote a referendum on Kurdish independence from Iraq. The U.S. opposes the referendum. The work for the Kurdish group appears to have been initiated this summer around the time that federal authorities working for Special Counsel Robert Mueller raided Manafort’s home in Virginia and informed him that they planned to indict him. New York Times

U.S. allies force NSA to back down in encryption row: An international group of cryptography experts has forced the NSA to back down over two data encryption techniques it wanted set as global industry standards, reflecting deep mistrust among close U.S. allies. Academic and industry experts from countries including Germany, Japan, and Israel worried that the U.S. spy agency was pushing the new techniques not because they were good encryption tools, but because it knew how to break them. The NSA has now agreed to drop all but the most powerful versions of the techniques—those least likely to be vulnerable to hacks—to address the concerns. Reuters

North Korea’s foreign minister Ri Yong-ho likened President Trump to a “dog barking,” ridiculing the American leader for threatening at the UN General Assembly to “totally destroy” his country if it persists in its nuclear and missile efforts. “If [Trump] thought he could scare us with the noise of a dog barking, well, he should be daydreaming,” he said. He is scheduled to speak to the General Assembly on Friday. New York Times, CNN

Meanwhile, Defense Secretary James Mattis insisted Wednesday that Washington is still looking for a diplomatic solution to the North Korea crisis. “It is still a diplomatically-led effort,” Mattis said, highlighting sanctions recently put in place by the UN Security Council and stressing the importance of multilateral cooperation. But Mattis also echoed other senior administration officials who have underscored military options to deal with Pyongyang’s missile and nuclear tests. Foreign Policy, The Hill
New York Times: The Contradiction Buried in Trump’s Iran and North Korea Policies
Associated Press: US allies divided over Trump's threat against North Korea
Reuters: Japan’s Abe Says Time for Talk is Over on North Korea

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani said on Wednesday at the UN General Assembly that President Trump’s strategy to win the war in Afghanistan will work where former President Obama failed. “Afghans are determined to fight. No one should mistake our will to defend our country,” Ghani said, adding that the Afghan army is better trained and benefitting from a new generation of soldiers. Ghani also praised Trump’s regional approach and harder line with Pakistan, saying Trump’s plan “provides a new context for Pakistan to seize the opportunity for engagement.” Reuters

Also on Wednesday, Pakistani Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, in response to President Trump’s threat to crack down on his country for harboring terrorists, insisted on that Pakistani military forces had uprooted all the sanctuaries used by Islamic extremists along its frontier with Afghanistan. “We have regained control of the area. There are no sanctuaries anymore. There are none at all. I can categorically state that,” he said. New York Times
Associated Press:
Afghan Official: Taliban Attack Kills 5 Policemen in South

Iraq begins offensive to retake Islamic State group stronghold Hawija: Iraq launched an offensive on Thursday to dislodge ISIS from Hawija, which is near the oil city of Kirkuk and one of two areas in the country still under the control of the militants. The Iraqi forces, deployed north and west of Hawija district, are pushing southward along the Tigris River and had cleared the first lines of ISIS defense. A U.S.-led international coalition is providing air support to the Iraqi forces’ offensive on Hawija, Iraqi state television said. Reuters, France24

ISIS backers find platform in Instagram: Researchers say ISIS supporters have found an ephemeral platform to share propaganda: Instagram’s “stories” feature, in which posts disappear after 24 hours. A recent software analysis identified more than 50,000 accounts linked to ISIS supporters posting Instagram stories. There is no sign that the majority of the posts are from ISIS central propaganda units—rather, they tend to be personal snapshots with little production value. In a statement on Wednesday, Instagram said, “there is no place for terrorists, terrorist propaganda, or the praising of terror activity on Instagram, and we work aggressively to remove content or an account as soon as we become aware of it.” Associated Press

Yemen rebel leader renews defiance on takeover anniversary: The leader of Yemen’s Shiite rebels lashed out with a defiant speech on the eve of the third anniversary of the day his forces stormed into the country’s capital of Sana’a. Abdel-Malek al-Houthi on Wednesday slammed the Saudi-led coalition opposing his forces, who control large swaths of territory in Yemen, including Sana’a. Al-Houthi accused the U.S., Saudi Arabia and the UAE of seeking to divide Yemen by working with local groups and the internationally recognized government to seize control of Houthi territory. Associated Press

The Iran nuclear deal is a “closed issue” and cannot be extended or changed in any way, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani declared Wednesday before the UN General Assembly, flatly rejecting President Trump’s criticism a day prior that the deal is weak and “an embarrassment.” Rouhani said that Iran would “not be the first country to violate the agreement,” yet warned that Iran would “respond decisively and resolutely to its violation by any party.” He suggested that if the U.S. abrogates the terms of the deal, Iran could resume larger-scale uranium-enrichment activities. “By violating its international commitments the new U.S. administration only destroys its credibility and undermines international confidence in negotiating with it or accepting its word or promise,” he said. U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, meanwhile, said he was not discouraged by Rouhani’s refusal to consider any kind of modification of the deal. CNN, Washington Post
New York Times: Trump Pushes to Revisit Iran Nuclear Deal, and Asks Allies to Help
BBC News: Iran Nuclear Deal: U.S. ‘Sunset Clause’ Concerns Remain

Three Swiss Muslim group members charged with making al Qaeda propaganda: Prosecutors said on Thursday they had charged three senior members of a Swiss Muslim group with making and promoting propaganda films for al-Qaeda. The indictment targeted three committee members of the Islamic Central Council of Switzerland (ICCS), which describes itself as the country’s largest Islamic organization and says it focuses on representing the local population. ICCS spokesman Abdel Azziz Qaasim Illi, who told Reuters he was one of the three men charged, dismissed the case as a “political show trial,” and said authorities had misunderstood the video at the heart of the case. Reuters

British police make sixth arrest in Tube bomb investigation: British detectives have arrested a 17-year-old youth in connection with a bomb attack on an underground train in London last week that injured 30 people, bringing the total number of arrests to six, police said on Thursday. The young man was arrested early on Thursday in Thornton Heath, south London. The other arrests had taken place in Dover on the south coast of England, Hounslow in west London, and Newport in Wales. Reuters, BBC News
The smart way to get tough with Iran: “Today, after two years of repeated affirmations of Iran’s compliance by our intelligence community and the International Atomic Energy Agency, American policy is at a fork in the road,” William J. Burns and Jake Sullivan write in the New York Times. “The smart way to proceed would be to keep the world’s powers united and the burden of proof on Iran...Then there’s the foolish way—which the Trump administration seems perpetually tempted to pursue. President Trump has already declared his hostility to the agreement. On Wednesday, he said he had reached a decision about the future of the deal, without saying what it was.”

After Islamic State, is there still an Iraq? “Once ISIS has been deprived of the territory it holds, can Iraq’s major communities come together to share power and build a common future? That question is sparking increasingly heated debate in Iraq and the international community,” Michael Dempsey writes in the Wall Street Journal. “After nearly three years of a grueling fight against ISIS and a huge commitment of U.S. blood and treasure, there is finally reason to be optimistic about Iraq’s future. But the country is nearing an inflection point, and only with mature and inclusive leadership in Baghdad, sustained U.S. engagement, and support from key allies in the West and the Gulf Cooperation Council will it be possible for Iraq to achieve a future with less violence and suffering and more reconciliation.”

The real deal Trump has to make on Afghanistan: “No U.S. plan for Afghanistan can accomplish even its most minimal objective of destroying militant groups like al Qaeda or the Taliban unless it factors in the mounting evidence that Tehran and Moscow are playing a more aggressive role in resisting the American presence in the region,” Maysam Behravesh writes in Reuters. “Trump’s anti-Iran sentiments make a similar collaboration unlikely. However, Washington does have to recognize that it cannot ignore Iran’s national security concerns in its immediate neighborhood or Russia’s strategic interests in Central and South Asia.”

For cutting-edge analysis of the geopolitical events shaping global affairs, read today’s TSC IntelBrief.

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