The Soufan Group Morning Brief



A federal judge barred until Tuesday the transfer by U.S. authorities of an American held for four months without charges in Iraq to another country, while she decides whether to permanently ban his transfer as he challenges his detention in court. The government has said the man is being held as a suspected member of ISIS and “enemy combatant” after surrendering to U.S.-backed rebels in Syria who turned him over to American forces in September.

The ACLU filed suit on October 5 to represent the man, who is a dual Saudi national but has not been identified. After U.S. District Judge Tanya Chutkan ordered the government to allow the ACLU to speak with him, she authorized the group to file a habeas corpus petition on his behalf. In a hearing on Thursday, government lawyers argued that transferring the man to another country with “a significant interest” in him would constitute the relief that he is seeking under habeas corpus.

But Judge Chutkan called that argument a “very literal reading of release” and expressed unease with wading into “the granular level of deciding who goes where,” citing a traditional deference by the courts to national security matters. Chutkan ordered the government to file a classified declaration providing more specifics on its rationale by close of business on Thursday. Washington Post, The Hill
Lawfare: Should Judge Chutkan Bar Transfer of the U.S. Citizen Enemy Combatant in Iraq?

The FBI is investigating whether a top Russian banker with ties to the Kremlin illegally funneled money to the National Rifle Association to help Donald Trump win the presidency. FBI counterintelligence investigators have focused on the activities of Alexander Torshin, the deputy governor of Russia’s central bank, who is known for his close relationships with both Russian President Vladimir Putin and the NRA. McClatchy, The Daily Beast

It is not publicly known how long the FBI has been investigating the matter. It is also unclear what evidence, if any, the FBI has of payments facilitated by Torshin to the NRA or whether the group transferred any funds. CNN, The Hill

Congressional testimony by the head of the political research firm Fusion GPS indicates that the Trump Organization’s sales of properties to Russian nationals may have involved money-laundering. The House Intelligence Committee on Thursday released the transcript of a November 14 closed-door interview with Fusion GPS founder Glenn Simpson, whose firm hired former MI6 spy Christopher steele to research then-presidential candidate Donald Trump’s campaign ties to Russians.

Simpson stopped short of saying the firm had found definitive proof of money laundering, telling investigators that, “evidence, I think, is a strong word.” In a statement, Representative Adam Schiff (D-CA) said, “those transcripts reveal serious allegations that the Trump Organization may have engaged in money laundering with Russian nationals.” Another Democrat on the Republican-controlled committee, Representative Jim Himes (D-CT), sought to temper Schiff’s comment, telling CNN that Simpson “did not provide evidence and I think that’s an important point. He made allegations.” Reuters, The Hill

The Senate on Thursday passed a bill to renew the NSA’s warrantless internet surveillance program for six years with minimal changes, overcoming objections from civil liberties advocates that it undermined the privacy of Americans. The legislation, which passed the House of Representatives last week, is expected to be signed into law by President Donald Trump. The bill reauthorizes what is known as Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which gathers information from foreigners overseas but incidentally collects an unknown amount of communications belonging to Americans.

Civil liberties groups fear that the FBI and other federal agents could use the information collected on Americans to search for evidence of domestic crimes without having to obtain a warrant as they normally would in such cases. The bill does impose a limited new warrant requirement for FBI agents to read any emails of an American who is already the subject of an open criminal investigation, but the requirement is narrowly written and some supporters have argued would not apply to the overwhelming majority of such searches. Reuters, New York Times, Wall Street Journal

“The government will use this bill to continue warrantless intrusions into Americans’ private emails, text messages, and other communications,” said Neema Singh Guliani, policy counsel with the ACLU. "No president should have this power.” USA Today
ACLU: Congress Just Passed a Terrible Surveillance Law. Now What?

Cable crew caught trying to sneak fake bomb onto plane at Newark Airport: Seven members of a cable TV crew were arrested at Newark Airport on Thursday after trying to film themselves passing a fake explosive device through a security checkpoint and onto a plane. Transport officials said a bag carrying an item with “all the makings of an improvised explosive device” was found before it had cleared security. The crew was reportedly part of a reality show being made by a production company for CNBC. Sources said the crew wanted to covertly film themselves going through a security checkpoint with the fake device as well as film the reaction of TSA and the possible public panic that would ensue. The crew face charges including conspiracy to create a public alarm. BBC News, NY Post, NY Daily News

Muslim Americans sue FBI for being put on terror watch list without reason: Five American Muslims have filed a lawsuit against FBI Director Christopher Wray and other members of the government because they believe they were put on a terrorist watch list without due process. The complaint, filed Wednesday in the district court for the Northern District of Texas, says the plaintiffs are victims of racial profiling and have suffered negative consequences due to their inclusion on the list. The Terrorist Screening Database is a secret list compiled by the FBI. It is impossible for people to verify whether or not they have been included on the list. But lawyers from the Council on American-Islamic Relations say people who are on the list know they were included because they are frequently harassed by law enforcement officials and consistently have their rights violated. Newsweek

Arrested former CIA officer had ties to Chinese spies, ex-colleague says: Jerry Chun Shing Lee, the former CIA officer arrested this week in New York, had repeated contacts with Chinese intelligence, both on an official basis while working for the agency in Beijing and afterward under circumstances his business associates found deeply suspicious. His contacts with Chinese intelligence suggest why American investigators suspect that Lee, who has been charged with mishandling classified information, may have played a role in the dismantling of the CIA’s network of agents in China beginning in 2010. The former colleague, who worked with Lee at Japan Tobacco International, said he was viewed at the company with mistrust and was fired as a result, before he came under intense FBI scrutiny as a possible turncoat. New York Times

Turkey’s defense minister said Friday there is no turning back from his country's decision to launch a ground assault on a Syrian Kurdish-controlled enclave in northwest Syria, saying the offensive had “de facto” started with the sporadic Turkish military shelling of the area. The Syrian Kurdish YPG militia said Turkish forces fired around 70 shells at Kurdish villages in the Afrin region of Syria in a bombardment that began around midnight, describing it as the heaviest such attack since Turkey stepped up threats to take military action against the Kurdish region. Associated Press, Reuters, BBC News

On Thursday, the U.S. State Department urged Turkey not to take military action against Kurdish forces and called on Ankara to remain focused on fighting ISIS militants in the region. “We don’t want [Ankara] to engage in violence but we want them to keep focused on ISIS,” State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said. Reuters

Civilian deaths tripled in U.S.-led campaign against ISIS in 2017, watchdog alleges: U.S. and allied strikes against ISIS may have killed as many as 6,000 civilians in 2017, as international forces pushed militants out of strongholds in Iraq and Syria, the watchdog group Airwars said Thursday. “In 2017 the war against ISIS moved into the most densely-populated urban centers controlled by the group, with dire results for civilians,” Airwars said in a report summarizing its investigations for the year, which it called the “deadliest yet” for Iraqis and Syrians. Airwars, which investigates allegations of civilian casualties by using social media and other information sources, said between 3,923 and 6,102 noncombatants were “likely killed” in air and artillery strikes. The estimate for Iraq and Syria was more than triple that of the year before, it added. Washington Post

ISIS claims responsibility for Baghdad bombings: ISIS on Wednesday claimed responsibility for twin suicide bombings in Baghdad this week. It was the first major attack in Iraq’s capital since the Iraqi government declared victory over ISIS last month. The sequence of the nearly simultaneous explosions is a well-established pattern for ISIS and al Qaeda and is aimed at killing the maximum number of civilians. But the statement, which was released on the messaging app Telegram, had a number of errors, including the location of Monday’s attack. The error, and the delay in issuing a claim of responsibility, would suggest that ISIS’ media apparatus has been disrupted in the period since the group lost most of its territory in Iraq and Syria. New York Times

North Korea may hold military parade on eve of Olympics, analysts say: North Korea may be preparing to hold a military parade on the eve of next month’s winter Olympics in South Korea, analysts and diplomats say, even as the two countries have sought to mend ties. Western diplomats in Pyongyang have said some international defense officials received invitations to a 70th anniversary commemoration of the Korean People’s Army on February 8. A large military demonstration that day would come a day before the opening ceremony of the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics in South Korea, in which athletes from the two sides are expected to march under a single flag in a demonstration of unity after kicking off official talks for the first time in two years in January. Reuters

Tensions soar along India, Pakistan frontier in Kashmir: Tensions have soared along the frontier between India and Pakistan in Kashmir, as rival troops shelled villages and border posts for a third day Friday. Three civilians and a soldier were killed on both sides in the latest clash, officials in the two countries said, as each blamed the other for initiating the violence. An Indian paramilitary officer said soldiers were responding to Pakistani firing and shelling on dozens of border posts and called it an “unprovoked” violation of a 2003 ceasefire accord. Angered over the rising violence, Pakistan’s Foreign Ministry summoned Indian Deputy High Commissioner J.P. Singh and condemned what it called “unprovoked ceasefire violations” by India. Associated Press

Teenager pleads not guilty to carrying out London bomb attack on train: A teenager accused of planting an improvised bomb on a London commuter train which injured 30 people pleaded not guilty on Friday to charges of attempted murder and causing an explosion at Parsons Green station in southwest London last September. Ahmed Hassan, 18, appeared at London's Old Bailey by video link from prison. He is charged with making a bomb and trying to murder passengers on a District Line underground train heading to central London from the southwestern suburb of Wimbledon. Flames engulfed the carriage but no-one was seriously hurt in what authorities said was Britain's fifth major attack of 2017. ISIS claimed responsibility for the attack. The two week trial is due to start on March 5. Reuters

Researchers say Lebanese intelligence turned targets’ phones into spy devices: Lebanon’s internal intelligence agency appears to have been caught spying on thousands of people — including journalists and military personnel — in more than 20 countries, according to researchers at the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Lookout, a mobile security company. The researchers found what they said was evidence that Lebanon’s intelligence agency, the General Directorate of General Security, spied on their targets’ Android mobile devices and desktop computers using various methods for more than six years. Their primary attack method was through a series of decoy Android apps designed to look like widely used private, secure messaging services such as WhatsApp and Signal. New York Times
How ISIS’ strategy is evolving: “With the end of the physical caliphate, ISIS’ tactics are evolving. It is more and more likely to avoid major battlefield engagements and instead resort to terrorist attacks in the Middle East, other conflict zones, and the West,” Michael P. Dempsey writes in Foreign Affairs. “U.S. policy needs to change quickly to meet the evolving threat, both in terms of its operations in the region and of its counterterrorism priorities at home.”

We’ve been here before: sticks don’t work well with Pakistan: “Over the past thirty years, successive U.S. administrations have pressured Pakistan, threatened to cut assistance, and even hinted at cutting off the relationship altogether. Shaming has not worked in the past, and is unlikely to do so this time,” John Sipher writes in Just Security. “We’ve always come down on the side of engagement, determining that, despite the frustrations, we are more secure working with Pakistani officials than abandoning them. The stakes are just too high. As important as success in Afghanistan is to the U.S., failure in Pakistan is far more critical.”

Iran after the protests: What comes next? “For the regime to stay in power, it has to concede to certain demands and evolve with the changes occurring in Iranian society,” Dina Esfandiary writes in the Washington Post. “The protests in Iran are unlikely to change who is in power. But they will spark a change of the system, led by the system. The Islamic Republic has proved its skill at staying in power, and it now recognizes that it needs to adapt to remain. But it will have to tread more carefully than ever before.”

Rex Tillerson’s Syria policy is sensible—but it’s fanciful: “So a president who is against regime change, long-term military commitments, nation building, and democracy promotion has now adopted a Syria policy that incorporates all those elements,” Kori Schake writes in The Atlantic. “But the resources the administration is willing to commit to this problem are at yawning variance with achieving those ambitious goals. It is unlikely the Trump administration will actually implement the Syria policy outlined by Tillerson Wednesday. Nothing he called for was freshly invented—all of these elements have been floated before. They have never been achieved for the simple reason that greater means have been brought to bear against their success.”

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

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