The Soufan Group Morning Brief


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THURSDAY, JANUARY 11, 2018
SURVEILLANCE BILL HEADED TO HOUSE FOR VOTE

A years-long debate over National Security Agency surveillance and protections for Americans’ privacy rights will reach a climactic moment on Thursday as the House of Representatives takes up legislation to extend a program of warrantless spying on internet and phone networks -- and could deliver a significant win to privacy advocates.

It is expected that Congress will extend an expiring statute, known as Section 702 of the FISA Amendments Act, that permits the government to collect without a warrant from American firms, like Google and AT&T, the emails and other communications of foreigners abroad — even when they are talking to Americans.

The House will vote on an Intelligence Committee bill that would extend the 702 program for six years with only minor changes. But House leaders are permitting lawmakers first to vote on a single proposed amendment that would make major changes.

That amendment would require the FBI to obtain a court order before reviewing the content of queries for Americans’ information in the database — though an order would not be required to search the database in the first place — and allow such an order only when investigators want to use the information in a criminal case.

If the legislation passes in its current form, the Senate is expected to quickly take it up before the law authorizing the program expires on Jan. 19. The Hill, New York Times
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NEW YORK BOMBING SUSPECT IS INDICTED
A Brooklyn man was indicted Wednesday on federal terrorism charges for last month's botched bombing in a New York City subway station.

Akayed Ullah, a Bangladeshi immigrant who has worked as a taxi driver and an electrician, would face life in prison if convicted of the holiday season attack in a passageway near the Port Authority bus terminal.

Ullah, 27, was the only person seriously injured in the Dec. 11 incident. He suffered burns and wounds as a result of a crude explosive device he allegedly made out of a pipe, a 9-volt battery and Christmas lights. A criminal complaint said that before the blast, Ullah posted two messages to his Facebook page — one that referenced ISIS and another that taunted the president. “Trump you failed to protect your nation,” the post said, according to court papers. NBC News, CNN

TRUMP DECLINES TO SAY THAT HE WILL AGREE TO MEET WITH MUELLER
President Trump on Wednesday declined to commit to a potential meeting with special counsel Robert Mueller, who told the president’s lawyers last month that he may want to interview Trump soon as part of his investigation.

“When you have no collusion and nobody has found any collusion at any level, it seems unlikely that you’d even have an interview,” Trump said, speaking at a news conference at the White House with Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg. “Certainly we’ll see what happens.” Wall Street Journal, New York Times
Related:
Washington Post: Mueller Adds Veteran Cyber Prosecutor to Special-Counsel Team

SENATE DEMOCRATS RELEASE PLAYBOOK TO PREVENT FUTURE RUSSIAN MEDDLING
The U.S. will not be prepared to defend against possible Russian meddling in the 2018 midterm elections or the 2020 presidential contest unless it takes action now, according to a new report by Senate Democrats detailing the extent to which Moscow has tried to shape elections across Europe.

The report details Russia’s arsenal of military invasions, disinformation campaigns and corruption, and its weaponization of energy resources, among other tools, and it demonstrates how Moscow’s attacks have intensified in scale and complexity, hitting Britain, Germany and France, as well as Ukraine.

The report also warns that unless the US acts to counter the threat soon, Moscow will grow only more aggressive. And it adds a crucial caveat, given President Donald Trump’s repeated refusal to acknowledge US intelligence assessments that Russia interfered in the 2016 election.

“Without leadership from the President, any attempt to marshal such a response will be inherently weakened at the outset,” it says. “President Trump has been negligent in acknowledging and responding to the threat to U.S. national security posed by [Russian President Vladimir] Putin's meddling.” CNN, Foreign Policy

Guantanamo hearings: Four of the five alleged 9/11 plotters voluntarily stayed away from Wednesday’s pretrial session, two because of a new “groin search” policy, missing a prison lawyer explain that guards were physically searching the captives thighs to ankles and avoiding their genitals. Miami Herald


TRUMP SHIFTS TONE ON NORTH KOREA
President Trump expressed openness to holding talks between the United States and North Korea during a call with South Korean President Moon Jae-in on Wednesday, a shift in rhetoric from even last week on the most pressing foreign policy challenge of Trump’s presidency so far.

Just last week Trump was taunting North Korean Kim Jong Un Kim about the respective size of their nuclear buttons. And on Tuesday, The Wall Street Journal reported that the administration is quietly debating whether a limited "bloody nose" military strike was possible against a North Korea without provoking Kim Jong-Un to launch a horrific all-out war in response.

On the call with the South Korean leader yesterday, President Trump said he’d be willing to hold talks between the U.S. and North Korea “at the appropriate time, under the right circumstances,” according to a White House readout. The call comes a day after representatives from North and South Korea held day-long negotiations in the demilitarized zone, where Pyongyang agreed to send a delegation to next month's Winter Olympics. CNN, NPR

REPORTS: TRUMP LIKELY TO RECERTIFY IRAN NUCLEAR DEAL
President Trump is expected this week to extend relief from economic sanctions to Iran as part of the nuclear deal, citing progress in amending U.S. legislation that governs Washington’s participation in the landmark accord, the Associated Press reported Wednesday. But Trump is likely to pair his decision to renew the concessions to Tehran with new, targeted sanctions on Iranian businesses and people. Those concurrent moves could satisfy Trump’s demand to raise pressure on Iran, while not embarking on a frontal assault on the most central trade-offs of the nuclear agreement. Associated Press, Los Angeles Times

U.S.: AIRSTRIKES KILL KEY AL QAEDA MILITANTS
U.S. airstrikes in Yemen late last year killed key leaders of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), United States Central Command said in a news release Wednesday.

CENTCOM said Habib al-Sana'ani -- an AQAP deputy arms facilitator said to be responsible for the movement of explosives, finances and weapons into parts of Yemen -- died in an airstrike on December 19. It also said external operations facilitator Miqdad al Sana'ani died December 15, and that Abu Umar al-Sana'ani, a Dawah committee member within the organization, was killed November 20 in an airstrike. CBS News

U.S. MILITARY LEADER SUGGESTS FATALLY BEATING ISIS FIGHTERS WITH A SHOVEL
A Facebook post written by a senior enlisted U.S. military leader raised eyebrows this week after it instructed troops to beat ISIS fighters with a shovel if they don’t surrender. Senior Enlisted Adviser to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Army Command Sergeant Major John Wayne Troxell, wrote Tuesday that ISIS has two options: “surrender or die.”

“If they surrender, we will safeguard them to their detainee facility cell, provide them chow, a cot and due process,” Troxell wrote. “HOWEVER, if they choose not to surrender, then we will kill them with extreme prejudice, whether that be through security force assistance, by dropping bombs on them, shooting them in the face, or beating them to death with our entrenching tools.”

When asked about the post, Troxell’s spokesman, Master Sgt. Robert Couture, said Troxell’s comments “communicate the tenacity of the warrior ethos” and “emphasized the sincerity of the coalition’s resolve in defeating ISIS, or Daesh, who over the past four years, have committed countless atrocities against men, women and children around the world.” ABC News, CNN

ISIS DECLARES WAR ON HAMAS
A new ISIS video accuses Hamas of betraying Palestinians by imprisoning extremists in Gaza, failing to prevent the American recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, and being supported by Iran. The video exposes new levels of enmity between Hamas and the Sinai branch of the Islamic State, injecting another layer of instability into an already volatile region. New York Times
TOP OP-EDS
Iran’s elites are far more fragile than they look: “Hard-liners and reformists are at odds over not only their place in the political system but also its future,” said Sanam Vakil in Foreign Policy. “In theory, all factions are united in protecting and preserving the Islamic Republic’s political system — even if they are divided on how to do so. But pragmatists and reformists’ support for economic liberalization policies promises to create a more open private sector that hard-liners believe will erode the values of the revolution, and their place in it.”

Trump’s threat to democracy: “We tend to assume that the threat to democracies comes from coups or violent revolutions,” writes Nicholas Kristof in the New York Times, “but the authors of a new book on how democracies die say that in modern times, democracies are more likely to wither at the hands of insiders who gain power initially through elections. That’s what happened, to one degree or another, in Russia, the Philippines, Turkey, Venezuela, Ecuador, Hungary, Nicaragua, Sri Lanka, Ukraine, Poland and Peru.”

Pakistan struggles while Afghanistan celebrates Trump’s cuts: “The long-term fall out from the spat could heighten Pakistan’s domestic political crisis — complicated by a constitutional tangle in Baluchistan province — and increase the risks for the 14,000 US and Nato forces in Afghanistan that depend heavily on supply lines that stretch through Pakistan from the port of Karachi,” writes Ahmed Rashid in the Financial Times. “Trump’s move has caused jubilation in Kabul, where Afghan leaders have been pleading with the U.S. for years to crack down on Pakistan’s alleged sanctuaries, especially for the Taliban-affiliated Haqqani network.”
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