The Soufan Group Morning Brief


The House of Representatives voted 256 to 164 on Thursday to extend the National Security Agency’s warrantless surveillance program for six years with minimal changes, rejecting a push by a bipartisan group of lawmakers to impose significant privacy limits when it sweeps up Americans’ emails and other personal communications.

The vote would extend an expiring law that permits the government, without a warrant, to collect communications from United States companies like Google and AT&T of foreigners abroad — even when those targets are talking to Americans. Before voting to extend the law, known as Section 702 of the FISA Amendments Act, the House rejected an amendment, by a vote of 183-233, that would have imposed a series of new safeguards. That proposal included a requirement that officials obtain warrants in most cases before hunting for, and reading, emails and other messages of Americans that were swept up under the surveillance.

Hours before the vote, President Trump set off last-minute turmoil when, shortly after “Fox & Friends” aired a segment discussing the issue, he expressed skepticism about government surveillance — even though the White House had issued a statement Wednesday night urging Congress to block significant new constraints on the NSA program. In the tweet, Trump suggested that the FISA law had been used by the Obama administration to “so badly surveil and abuse the Trump Campaign.”

That tweet alarmed House Republicans, and House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) then spent 30 minutes on the phone with the president explaining the differences between domestic and foreign surveillance, according to the Washington Post.

A presidential correction came 101 minutes after the initial tweet. The second missive — an explanation perhaps as much for Trump himself as for anybody else — stated that “today’s vote is about foreign surveillance of foreign bad guys on foreign land.”

“We need it!” Trump concluded in his second Twitter message. “Get smart!”

The measure now moves to the Senate, where it is expected to pass easily. New York Times, Roll Call, Vox, Daily Beast, Wall Street Journal
Washington Post: Trump’s ‘Ping-Pong’ on Surveillance Law Sets Off 101-Minute Scramble
President Trump on Thursday balked at an immigration deal that would include protections for people from Haiti and some nations in Africa, demanding to know at a White House meeting why he should accept immigrants from “shithole countries” rather than from places like Norway, according to multiple reports.

Those explosive remarks from the president roiled the debate as Democrats erupted in outrage and accused Trump of setting back prospects for any deal. “This is like throwing gasoline to the fire,” Rep. Adriano Espaillat (D-N.Y.), an immigrant from the Dominican Republic, which shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti, told the Washington Post. “It’s not consistent with what the behavior of a president should be.”

The comments came during an Oval Office discussion with lawmakers of both parties about an emerging bipartisan deal to give legal status to immigrants illegally brought to the United States as children. Trump reportedly became angry about the visa lottery program, which benefits some African countries, and about the temporary protected status afforded to immigrants from certain nations, including El Salvador and Haiti.

“Why do we need more Haitians?” Trump said, according to people familiar with the meeting. “Take them out.”

In a written statement, Raj Shah, the White House deputy press secretary, did not deny the account of the meeting on Thursday or directly address Mr. Trump’s comments. Certain Washington politicians choose to fight for foreign countries, but President Trump will always fight for the American people,” Shah said. Washington Post, New York Times, Wall Street Journal

Guantanamo suit: Eleven Guantanamo inmates are challenging their indefinite detention in the U.S. military prison in Cuba on grounds that President Trump’s pledge to keep all remaining detainees permanently locked up is fueled by hostility towards Muslims. Guardian

Hezbollah investigation team at DOJ: The U.S. Justice Department has set up a team to investigate individuals and organizations providing support to Hezbollah, the Iran-backed Islamist group in Lebanon that the U.S. has branded a terrorist organization, Attorney General Jeff Sessions said on Thursday. Reuters

The Pentagon is planning to bolster the Trump administration’s new approach in Afghanistan by reallocating drones and other hardware while sending in around 1,000 new combat advisers, reports the Wall Street Journal. The idea is to bulk up the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan by the time the traditional fighting season begins in the spring. The military will send a larger number of drones, both armed and unarmed, to Afghanistan for air support as well as for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance. Wall Street Journal

Barely more than a week after boasting that he has a bigger nuclear button than North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, President Trump portrayed himself on Thursday as having good relations with the autocratic leader.

“I probably have a very good relationship with Kim Jong-un,” Trump told The Wall Street Journal in an interview. “I have relationships with people. I think you people are surprised.” Trump declined to say whether he had directly spoken with his North Korean counterpart. “I’m not saying I have or haven’t,” he said. Wall Street Journal
Reuters: Putin Says ‘Shrewd and Mature’ Kim Jong Un Has ‘Won This Round’ Against the West

Pakistan has stopped sharing key intelligence with the U.S. in the first sign that Washington’s decision to suspend military aid to Islamabad could hamper its war effort in Afghanistan. The country was no longer handing over information collected from sources on the ground in the border region with Afghanistan, Pakistani officials told the Financial Times, leaving the U.S. reliant on air surveillance and intercepted communications. Financial Times

Report warns of ISIS resurgence: An unreleased analysis presented at recent coalition meetings by the United Nations suggests that five of the areas newly liberated from ISIS in Iraq along the Syrian border urgently require stabilization, or risk falling to violent extremism again. The report suggests the situation on the ground is a much more complicated and fluid situation on the ground than coalition military leaders have let on. Foreign Policy

Yemen’s civil war: A withering United Nations report on Yemen’s civil war provides fresh evidence about the extent to which Saudi Arabia and Iran have intervened in the conflict, pursuing their regional proxy war even as Yemen disintegrated into “warring statelets” that would be difficult to reunite. Washington Post

President Trump said in a tweet late Thursday that he has called off a planned visit to Britain because he didn’t want to be associated with what he called a bad real estate deal in which the U.S. Embassy is being relocated from central London to “an off location.”

Trump’s trip, which was never formally announced but widely assumed to be next month, was likely to be met with widespread protests.

Trump said that he was “not a big fan of the Obama Administration having sold perhaps the best located and finest embassy in London for “peanuts,” only to build a new one in an off location for 1.2 billion dollars. Bad deal.” In fact, the George W. Bush administration decided more than a decade ago to relocate the embassy from offices on prime land in in central London to a plot on the banks of the Thames in the south of the city. Security concerns drove the move, in line with a worldwide upgrade and redesign of embassy facilities to better protect them from vehicle bombs and other terrorism. Washington Post, New York Times

Peter Hoekstra, the newly minted U.S. ambassador to the Netherlands, held his first conference with the Dutch media at his new residence in the Hague on Wednesday, and offered an uncomfortable silence when he was peppered with questions about anti-Muslim statements he’d made in 2015.

Dutch journalists repeatedly questioned Hoekstra, who became Trump’s ambassador after serving 18 years as a Republican congressman from Michigan, about unsubstantiated claims he made in 2015 about the chaos the “Islamic movement” had brought to the Netherlands. “There are cars being burned, there are politicians that are being burned,” he had said at a conference hosted by a conservative group. “And yes, there are no-go zones in the Netherlands.”

After Hoekstra refused to answer repeated questions, the videoed exchanges were published on social media. One journalist can be heard saying, “This is the Netherlands, you have to answer questions.” Chicago Tribune, Washington Post
The souls left in Guantanamo won’t just disappear: “Few things could more appropriately commemorate Thursday's 16th anniversary of the opening of the Guantanamo Bay detention facility than a new lawsuit filed by 11 of the 41 detainees still in US custody there,” said Steve Vladeck in “Reasonable minds will continue to disagree about the virtues and vices of long-term military detention as a staple of contemporary US military policy. But the critical point is that these are debates we ought to be having -- and policy solutions we ought to be discussing. As we enter the 17th year of military detention at Guantanamo, we can't just close our eyes and hope it -- and the 41 men still held there -- simply go away.”

Want to strike North Korea? It’s not going to go the way you think: “For the bulk of my professional career, I’ve been studying maybe the most difficult and dangerous question in American foreign policy: how to handle a North Korea armed with nuclear weapons,” writes Van Jackson in Politico. Now that the Trump administration is reportedly debating a ‘bloody nose’ strategy, I’m getting “nightmare flashbacks. Advocates of the bloody nose strategy are willing to make a bet: that if the U.S. attacks the North in an unprovoked but limited way, Kim will not retaliate with violence in kind—or worse. This assumption amounts to a sucker’s bet, and the price will be mass casualties. Hundreds of thousands of people could die.”

A more radical way for Trump to confront Pakistan: “Whatever the genesis of Trump’s approach, he is right to assail Pakistan’s military, which has a long history of tacitly backing the Taliban and other militant groups,” writes David Rohde in the New Yorker. “The question is whether his ever-shifting policy positions, clumsy statecraft, and disdain for diplomacy will doom his effort. The most radical card that Trump could play would involve adding some coherence and diplomacy to his strategy.”
For cutting-edge analysis of the geopolitical events shaping global affairs, read today’s TSC IntelBrief.

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