The Soufan Group Morning Brief



Steve Bannon, President Trump’s former chief strategist, will be interviewed by investigators working for the special counsel in the Russia investigation instead of testifying before a grand jury, in a sign that he is cooperating with the inquiry. Last week, Special Counsel Robert Mueller subpoenaed Bannon to appear before a grand jury.

It was not clear why Mueller subpoenaed Bannon and did not first ask him to sit for an interview, as Mueller has done with more than a dozen current and former White House officials who were questioned in recent months. Mueller could still call Bannon to appear before a grand jury after he meets with investigators. Legal experts have said the subpoena could be a sign that the investigation is accelerating, while others said it may have simply been a negotiating tactic to force Bannon to quickly agree to be interviewed. New York Times, CNN, ABC News

Bannon was also subpoenaed by the House Intelligence Committee on Tuesday after he refused to answer several questions about President Trump, saying the White House had told him to assert executive privilege. Bannon's attorney reportedly relayed questions to the White House in real time during the interview to ask whether his client could respond. CBS News, CNN
CBS News: FBI Agents Visited Bannon’s House
CNN: Bannon’s Hill Appearance Reveals White House Effort to Restrict Testimony
Washington Post: Bannon Has Agreed to Answer Mueller’s Questions. Here’s What Mueller Wants to Know.

Lawmakers grilled executives from Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter on Wednesday about what the companies are doing to prevent terrorists from using their platforms to spread propaganda and recruit new followers. The hearing by the Senate’s Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee comes amid growing government scrutiny over misuse of social media platforms. It also follows congressional hearings in November about what the companies knew — and did — about Russia's efforts to meddle with the 2016 U.S. elections using their platforms.

Lawmakers acknowledged that the companies have come a long way when it comes to weeding out extremist material, but they said more needs to be done. All three companies stressed their increasing reliance on automated systems and artificial intelligence to combat terrorism on their platforms. Facebook said 99 percent of extremist material related to Al Qaeda and ISIS is detected and removed before anyone manually reports it. But lawmakers and others noted that artificial intelligence is less helpful in terms of anticipating future social-media tactics used by extremists. Associated Press, CBS News, The Verge

Lawyers for the Uzbek man charged in the truck attack on a crowded Manhattan bike path that killed eight people on Halloween said on Wednesday that their client would plead guilty and accept life imprisonment without parole if prosecutors agreed not to seek the death penalty. The proposal came in an exchange of letters to Judge Vernon S. Broderick of Federal District Court in Manhattan. Prosecutors were seeking a firm trial date for the defendant, Sayfullo Saipov, and Saipov’s lawyer said the best way to obtain closure was through such a plea deal. The government has not yet said whether it would seek the death penalty for Saipov, 29, who was indicted on eight capital counts and other charges in the October 31 attack. Saipov has pleaded not guilty. New York Times

U.S. prosecutors on Wednesday accused a German man currently imprisoned in France of supporting al Qaeda in the years leading up to 9/11 and of conspiring to kill Americans. In an indictment unsealed in Manhattan federal court, prosecutors said Christian Ganczarski, 51, had personal relationships with Osama bin Laden and other al Qaeda members. They said Ganczarski helped al Qaeda plan attacks on Americans by sharing his expertise in computers, radio communications, and weapons systems, and that he traveled from Germany to Pakistan and Afghanistan at least five times between 1999 and 2001 and met with al Qaeda leaders.

Ganczarski was in Germany at the time of 9/11, but said afterwards that he “had been aware that something big was about to happen,” according to the indictment. The U.S. is seeking Ganczarski’s extradition from France, where he has served 15 years of an 18-year sentence for crimes related to a 2002 Qaeda attack on a synagogue in Tunisia. New York Times, Reuters

A former college student in Sacramento, California, accused of attempting to provide material support to terrorists in Syria has asked a federal judge to toss the case on grounds he qualifies for the kind of immunity commonly bestowed on national armies in wartime. Lawyers for the 24-year-old Iraqi refugee, Aws Mohammed Younis Al-Jayab, argue in a motion filed in Chicago federal court that their client was involved with U.S.-supported Syrian rebels working to topple Bashar al Assad as opposed to terrorists.

The attorneys cite the internationally recognized “doctrine of combatant immunity” that prohibits the prosecution of soldiers involved in wars between nations. They say immunity can be extended to rebels in conflicts where multiple nations have intervened. Al-Jayab spent time in 2012 in a refugee camp near Damascus, where friends and family members of his were killed by forces loyal to Assad, the defense filing says. That experience motivated him to return briefly to Syria in late 2013 to fight. Prosecutors in Chicago, where the case was transferred after Al-Jayab's 2016 arrest, have until February 20 to file a response to the immunity claims. Associated Press

Judge denies request to boost number of Trump voters in jury: Three men accused of plotting to bomb an apartment complex housing Somali refugees in Kansas have no legal basis to request that prospective jurors come from rural counties where more residents voted for President Donald Trump, a federal judge ruled Wednesday. The men are accused of targeting apartments and a mosque in rural western Kansas. They are being tried about 220 miles away at the closest federal courthouse in Wichita, where trials pull prospective jurors from surrounding, more urban counties. U.S. District Judge Eric Melgren ruled that the demographic differences between the regions are not legally recognizable and would not violate the men’s right to a jury trial before a cross-section of the community. Associated Press

USS Cole case judge asks chief judge to rule on release of war court audio recordings: A military judge has recused himself from ruling on a request to release audio recordings from the Guantanamo war court to a federal court that is deciding whether to clear a Marine general of contempt charges. Instead, Air Force Col. Vance Spath is asking the chief of the war court judiciary to decide whether to release the recordings. Prosecutors believe the recordings may reveal Marine Brig. Gen. John Baker laughing and scoffing “in a contemptuous manner” during October 31 and November 1 proceedings in the USS Cole case at Guantanamo. At the time, Spath found Baker guilty of contempt and sentenced him to 21 days of confinement in his quarters for refusing a direct order to reverse his decision to release three civilian defense attorneys who quit over an ethical conflict. Baker’s lawyers are asking a federal judge to overturn the contempt conviction. Miami Herald

Justice official defends using terrorist report to bolster immigration stance:  A Justice Department official on Wednesday defended the Trump administration’s use of a terrorism report containing contested figures to promote efforts to change the nation’s immigration system. The report, released on Tuesday by the departments of Justice and Homeland Security, contended that 73 percent of the 549 individuals convicted on terrorism charges since 9/11 were born outside the U.S. But experts have disputed that figure, arguing that the report appeared framed to support the White House’s proposed immigration reforms. Ed O’Callaghan, principal deputy assistant attorney general, maintained that including terrorists arrested overseas and extradited to the U.S. is acceptable because the arrests ultimately foiled terror plots against the U.S. Politico

Kelly calls Trump’s campaign wall promises ‘not fully informed:’ White House Chief of Staff John Kelly told Democratic lawmakers Wednesday that President Trump’s campaign promise to build a wall along the Mexican border was “not fully informed,” and that the president has “evolved” on the issue of immigration, participants in the meeting said. Kelly met with members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus amid efforts to negotiate a deal to protect the young undocumented immigrants known as “dreamers” from deportation. Trump announced the end of an Obama-era program protecting dreamers in September. Kelly told the lawmakers that “he was the one who tempered” Trump “on the issue of the wall” and on immigration. Washington Post, New York Times, The Hill

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Wednesday committed the U.S. to an indefinite military presence in Syria, citing a range of policy goals that extend far beyond the defeat of ISIS. Tillerson said the U.S. will reinvigorate diplomatic efforts and maintain about 2,000 U.S. troops in Syria as part of a new focus on countering Iran, as well as pursuing overall political stability in the country.

The Trump administration wants to be engaged in Syria as the threat from Iran rises and ISIS recedes, he said. “Iran has dramatically strengthened its presence in Syria by deploying Iranian Revolutionary Guard troops, supporting Lebanese Hezbollah and importing proxy forces from Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and elsewhere,” Tillerson said. He added that the experience of the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq in 2011, which was followed by the rise of ISIS and the U.S. military’s return to the region, necessitated an open-ended U.S. presence in Syria.

Tillerson also said the U.S. will not aid reconstruction in Syrian territory controlled by President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. “The United States, the EU and regional partners will not provide international reconstruction assistance to any area under control of the Assad regime. We ask all stakeholders in Syria’s future to do the same.” Wall Street Journal, Washington Post
Reuters: Syrian Government Says U.S. Military Presence in Syria is Act of Aggression
Reuters: Tillerson Says U.S. Has No Intention to Build Border Force in Syria

President Trump on Wednesday accused Russia of helping North Korea skirt international sanctions aimed at curbing North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs. “Russia is not helping us at all with North Korea,” Trump said in an interview with Reuters. “What China is helping us with, Russia is denting. In other words, Russia is making up for some of what China is doing.” China and Russia both signed onto the latest rounds of United Nations Security Council sanctions against North Korea imposed last year.

Trump also cast doubt on whether talks with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un would be useful. In the past, he has not ruled out direct talks with Kim. “I’d sit down, but I’m not sure that sitting down will solve the problem,” he said, noting that past negotiations with the North Koreans by his predecessors had failed to rein in North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs. He said he hoped tensions with Pyongyang could be resolved “in a peaceful way, but it’s very possible that it can’t.” Reuters, CNN

U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley said Wednesday that the Trump administration’s policy in Afghanistan is working, saying talks between the government and Taliban extremists, and a peace process, are closer than ever before. “They [the Afghan government] are starting to see the Taliban concede, they are starting to see them move towards coming to the table,” Haley said.

In August, President Trump announced his strategy for ending the nearly two-decade-long war in Afghanistan. It involves shifting away from a “time-based” approach to fighting the war to instead put emphasis on linking U.S. assistance to concrete results and cooperation from the Afghan government. It includes sending up to 3,900 more U.S. troops on top of the 8,400 troops already there. Associated Press, Voice of America

Meanwhile, a delegation approved by the Taliban’s supreme leader visited the Pakistani capital this week for exploratory talks on restarting peace negotiations to the Afghan war. It was unclear if any progress was made in the unofficial meetings. They followed another back-channel meeting over the weekend in Turkey between individuals with Taliban connections and representatives of Hizb-i-Islami, the party of a former Taliban-allied commander who last year laid down arms to join Afghan politics. Reuters

Pence plan to target aid for Christians in Iraq sparks concern: The Trump administration has decided to steer humanitarian aid funding to Christian and other minority communities in Iraq, against the advice of some officials at the State Department and the UN. The administration, prompted in part by Vice President Mike Pence’s strong links to Christian advocacy groups, recently clashed with the United Nations Development Programme over how to spend aid funds in Iraq, rejecting an assessment that aid should be focused on more populated areas around the war-damaged city of Mosul. In the end, the two sides struck a compromise. A portion of UNDP funds will be redirected away from Mosul and other areas where UN and U.S. officials fear ISIS might return and transferred to villages that are home to Christian and other minority groups. Foreign Policy

Saudi Arabia to transfer $2 billion after urgent Yemen plea: Saudi Arabia’s King Salman ordered the transfer of $2 billion to Yemen on Wednesday, a day after Yemen’s Saudi-backed prime minister made an urgent appeal on the kingdom and its allies to save the local currency from “complete collapse.” Prime Minister Ahmed Obeid bin Daghir had called on the kingdom and its allies to act “now, not tomorrow,” and said saving the Yemeni rial means “saving Yemenis from inevitable famine.” Saudi Arabia said in a statement that the funds would be deposited in Yemen’s Central Bank to help address the “deteriorating economic situation faced by the Yemeni people.” Associated Press, Financial Times

Suspected Afghan Taliban member indicted in Germany: German authorities have filed terrorism and murder charges against a suspected member of Afghanistan's Taliban. Federal prosecutors said Thursday they filed the indictment against the 20-year-old Afghan national, identified only as Omaid N., at the Munich state court. He is charged with membership in a terrorist organization, war crimes, and violation of war weapons control laws. Prosecutors say the suspect joined the Taliban in 2013, underwent training, recruited new members, and led a weapons transport. He is also accused of beating an Afghan police officer then shooting him with a Kalashnikov. The suspect, who arrived in Germany in late 2013, was arrested in May 2017. Associated Press

Security tops agenda of UK summit with Macron and May: Britain will pay tens of millions of dollars toward border security in France and support French military missions as part of moves to bind the countries closer together after Brexit. UK Prime Minister Theresa May is meeting French President Emmanuel Macron on Thursday in a bilateral summit intended to strengthen security and intelligence ties between the two nations. In return, France will send troops to join a UK-led NATO battle group in Estonia in 2019, aimed at countering an increasingly assertive Russia. The leaders of the five main UK and French spy agencies are also meeting for the first time Thursday to discuss increased intelligence-sharing. France24
We looked at the state of democracy around the world, and the results are grim: “2017 marked the 12th consecutive year in which democracy has declined around the world: Those countries experiencing setbacks in political rights and civil liberties far outnumber those showing improvements,” Michael J. Abramowitz and Wendell L. Willkie II write in the Washington Post. “In themselves, the setbacks to date are alarming, but not catastrophic...But the retreat of the United States from global leadership, coupled with the Trump administration’s weak and ambiguous commitment to democratic values at home, raises serious concerns about the near future. As democracy is undermined, the world inevitably becomes a more dangerous place.”

U.S. national security policy past as present in Afghanistan: “Since 2001 the U.S. has labored, at significant human and material cost, in pursuit of two sets of policy objectives that on paper appear complementary: one focused on counterterrorism, and the other on institution-building to deny extremists a safe haven and recruitment pool born of weak governance,” Owen Kirby writes in The Hill. “In practice, however, the preponderance of effort from the start has favored the former, posing serious challenges for the latter.”

Can Europe save the Iran deal? “Europe, with which Iran has nearly doubled trade in the past year, arguably holds the key to keeping the deal together. Although it cannot persuade everyone in Washington, it can persuade many of them to stay faithful to U.S. commitments,” Ali Vaez writes in Foreign Affairs. “If Washington refuses to listen, Europe could then move to Plan B: preserving the essence of the deal irrespective of what Washington chooses to do, just as members of the international community have sought to salvage the Paris agreement on climate change, from which the United States has announced its planned withdrawal, and just as Pacific nations have built an alternative trade pact following Trump’s rejection of the Trans Pacific Partnership.”

The Olympics will only make the Korea crisis worse: “The current promises of improved international relations and durable inter-Korean reconciliation could well turn out to be hollow,” David Clay Large writes in Foreign Policy. “If past Olympic history means anything, the party in Pyeongchang will not bring true reconciliation between North and South or make the world at large a more harmonious place. And just as the Berlin Games of 1936 did not dissuade Hitler from re-arming for war, these Korean Games will not convince Kim Jong Un to stop adding to his nuclear arsenal, much less give it up altogether.”

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

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