The Soufan Group Morning Brief



Special Counsel Robert Mueller has indicated an interest in questioning President Donald Trump about his dismissals of former FBI Director James Comey and former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn. Trump’s attorneys have crafted some negotiating terms for the president’s interview with Mueller’s team, which could be presented to the special counsel as soon as next week, the Washington Post reported. The president’s legal team reportedly hopes to provide Trump’s testimony in a hybrid form — answering some questions in a face-to-face interview and others in a written statement.

Earlier this month, Trump declined to say whether he would grant an interview to Mueller and his team, deflecting questions on the topic by saying there had been “no collusion” between his campaign and Russia during the 2016 presidential election. Washington Post, CNN

Discussions about a Trump interview come amid the broader inquiry into Russia’s interference in the 2016 election. Last week, Attorney General Jeff Sessions was interviewed for several hours by special counsel investigators, according to Justice Department officials. He is the first member of Trump’s Cabinet to be questioned in the probe. Sessions is a key witness to two of the major issues Mueller is investigating, namely the Trump campaign’s possible ties to Russia and whether Trump obstructed the Russia investigation. Mueller has also expressed interest in Trump’s efforts to remove Sessions as attorney general or pressure him into quitting, according to a person familiar with the probe. Trump repeatedly criticized Sessions after the attorney general recused himself from the Russia inquiry last year. New York Times, BBC News
CNN: Day of Bombshells Takes Mueller Probe to Critical Point
CNN: Former Trump Campaign Aide Rick Gates May Be Negotiating with Mueller's Team
Politico: GOP Escalates Law Enforcement Probes as Russia Inquiry Heats Up

Trump asked the acting FBI director how he voted during Oval Office meeting: President Donald Trump asked acting FBI director Andrew McCabe who he voted for in the 2016 election in an introductory Oval Office meeting, the Washington Post reported Tuesday, citing several current and former U.S. officials. The meeting happened in May, shortly after Trump fired former FBI Director James Comey. The officials said McCabe responded by telling the President that he did not vote.

Trump also expressed frustration that McCabe’s wife had received “several hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations” when she ran for a Virginia state Senate seat in 2015 from a group with ties to Hillary Clinton, the officials said. McCabe found the conversation with Trump “disturbing,” a former U.S. official said. Another person said the Trump-McCabe conversation is of interest to Special Counsel Robert Mueller. Washington Post, CNN

A federal judge on Tuesday ordered the U.S. government to give 72 hours advance notice before transferring an American citizen accused of fighting with ISIS to another country. The unidentified detainee, who was born in the U.S. and holds dual citizenship with Saudi Arabia, surrendered on the Syrian battlefield in mid-September. The U.S. military is detaining him in Iraq as an enemy combatant. U.S. District Judge Tanya Chutkan’s ruling does not prevent the government from transferring the detainee to another country, but says it must provide advance notice of any transfer so it can be contested in court.

In October, the ACLU filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus on behalf of the detainee, arguing that his imprisonment is unlawful. Earlier this month, the detainee asked to be released and told the ACLU he opposed being forcibly transferred to the custody of another country, said ACLU senior staff attorney Jonathan Hafetz. The ACLU asked Chutkan to continue to ban the detainee’s transfer to another country until the case contesting his detention is resolved. Hafetz said the ruling on Tuesday “helps to ensure that this citizen’s rights are respected and that he will receive due process in an American court.” Associated Press, Huffington Post
Lawfare: Turning a Citizen Military Detainee Over to Another Country: The Valentine/Munaf Issue in Doe v. Mattis

FBI Director Christopher Wray, who has been under political pressure to remove top officials at the bureau, is filling two senior positions previously held by people who served under former director James Comey. Dana Boente, the U.S. attorney in the Eastern District of Virginia who is acting head of the Justice Department’s national security division, has been selected to be the FBI’s next general counsel. He replaces James Baker, who was reassigned late last year. Boente is a veteran federal prosecutor and has risen to prominence in a variety of acting roles in the Trump administration. When President Trump fired Acting Attorney General Sally Yates over her refusal to defend his travel ban, Boente took over and said he would defend the measure.

Wray also will replace his chief of staff, Jim Rybicki, who announced he would resign last month, with Zachary J. Harmon, a colleague from the law firm where Wray was a partner before joining the bureau. The moves come as Wray has faced pressure from Attorney General Jeff Sessions to make personnel changes, including replacing FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe, which Wray has resisted. Washington Post, Associated Press

Judge moves ahead with pretrial preparation for USS Cole trial: The dilemma of how to go forward with the USS Cole death-penalty trial after the capital defense lawyer quit loomed over this week’s hearing. The judge, Air Force Col. Vance Spath, repeatedly rejected an argument by the lone defense lawyer, former Navy SEAL Lt. Alaric Piette, that the hearings should cease until an experienced capital defense attorney reaches court.  At one point, Spath scolded Piette for mounting no defense in a pretrial hearing and urged him to “engage in self help” by attending special training to become “more comfortable handling capital matters.”

The crisis was sparked by the resignations in October of three civilian defense attorneys on ethical grounds. In November, Spath rejected their resignations and then convicted their supervisor, Marine Brig. Gen. John Baker, of contempt of the war court for releasing them from the case. Baker is appealing the conviction in federal court. On Monday, Spath pressed ahead with pretrial preparation as prosecutors called a series of FBI agents and technicians from the time of the 2000 bombing to authenticate their signatures on evidence bags collected at the site. Miami Herald

Congressional Democrats call on Facebook, Twitter to investigate Russian bots and trolls: Top congressional Democrats on Tuesday called on Facebook and Twitter to urgently examine the role of Russian bots and trolls in a growing online campaign to release a classified memo about allegations that the FBI mishandled a classified surveillance request as it probed Russia’s meddling in the 2016 campaign. The letter to Facebook and Twitter by Rep. Adam Schiff and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, both California Democrats,  calls for rapid study of the allegations and for the companies to shut down accounts that are involved. Washington Post

McMaster dismisses rumors of departure: National security adviser H.R. McMaster on Tuesday dismissed rumors he could soon leave President Trump’s staff. “I have a job and it is my intention to go as long and hard as I can in service of the president and the nation,” McMaster told reporters. The Hill

The U.S. on Tuesday accused Syria’s government of a chlorine gas attack on civilians on Monday in Eastern Ghouta, the same rebel enclave that was hit more than four years ago in the deadliest chemical attack in the Syrian war. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said he is holding Russia accountable for the attack. Moscow’s failure to halt chemical strikes calls into question Russia’s ability to participate in efforts to resolve the Syrian crisis, Tillerson said Tuesday at the end of a meeting of more than 20 countries on preventing chemical weapon use.

“Whoever conducted the attacks, Russia ultimately bears responsibility for the victims in east Ghouta, and countless other Syrians targeted with chemical weapons since Russia became involved in Syria,” he said. He said that more than 20 civilians, many of them children, suffered in the attack on Monday, adding that “the recent attacks in Eastern Ghouta raise serious concerns that Bashar al-Assad may be continuing to use chemical weapons against his own people.” Tillerson also called on Russia to stop its practice of vetoing UN Security Council votes on chemical weapon use in Syria. New York Times, Reuters, Wall Street Journal

France and the U.S. on Tuesday urged Turkey to exercise restraint in its offensive against a Kurdish-held enclave in northern Syria, where the UN says an estimated 5,000 people have been displaced by the fighting. Turkish troops and allied Syrian fighters pressed ahead with their operations in Afrin for the fourth day on Tuesday and met resistance from the U.S.-allied Kurdish militia, the People’s Defense Units (YPG), that controls the enclave. On Tuesday, Turkey said it killed at least 260 Syrian Kurdish fighters and ISIS militants in its offensive into Afrin. U.S. President Donald Trump is expected to raise concerns about Turkey’s offensive in a call with Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan on Wednesday, a senior administration official said. Reuters, Associated Press
NPR: Why Are U.S. Allies Killing Each Other In Syria?
Reuters: U.S.-Backed Syria Force Denies Islamic State in Area Targeted by Turkey
Washington Post: The U.S. Alliance With Turkey Just Lunged Toward the Breaking Point

The U.S.-led coalition fighting ISIS killed approximately 150 ISIS fighters in a Saturday airstrike, Col. Ryan Dillon, a spokesman for the coalition, said Tuesday. The target of the strike was an “ISIS headquarters and command and control center,” Dillon said, adding that the strike involved “over a week's worth” of intelligence work that included information from U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces fighting ISIS on the ground. A statement from the coalition said that the location was “exclusively” occupied by ISIS fighters and was under constant surveillance, ruling out the possibility of civilian casualties. CNN

The CIA believes North Korea’s missile program is aimed at coercion, rather than self-defense, and that Pyongyang’s next logical step would be to develop an arsenal of weapons and the capability to fire multiple missiles, the agency’s director Mike Pompeo said Tuesday. Pompeo also said a key risk of allowing North Korea to develop its nuclear and missile program is that it will spur nuclear proliferation by other countries. He added that U.S. President Donald Trump is focused on finding a diplomatic solution to the crisis but the CIA is working to provide him with a range of other options. Reuters, Politico

Iraq seeks aid to rebuild after IS, but donors could be wary: Iraq hopes to raise billions of dollars at a conference next month to fund reconstruction after its costly war against ISIS, but many fear the country’s endemic corruption could undermine the appeal. Iraq declared victory over ISIS in December after driving the extremists from nearly all the territory they once held, but three years of grueling combat has taken a devastating toll, leaving entire towns and neighborhoods in ruins. Kuwait will host an international conference in mid-February aimed at rallying support for Iraq’s reconstruction. The UN, the U.S. and Saudi Arabia support the initiative, the details of which have yet to be made public. Iraqi officials have estimated they will need up to $100 billion to rebuild after the war against ISIS. Associated Press

Attackers target Save the Children office in Afghanistan: Militants attacked the offices of British aid agency Save the Children in Jalalabad, Afghanistan on Wednesday, killing a police officer and a civilian, authorities said. At least 20 people were injured in the assault, which started when a suicide bomber detonated explosives at the gate. At least one assailant then stormed the building and was later killed by security forces. It is unclear who is responsible for the attack. A spokesman for the Taliban denied responsibility for the attack in a statement sent to members of the media. CNN, BBC News

Somalia lures defectors in new push against insurgents: Somali officials are encouraging defections from al Shabaab in a secretive effort to undermine the al Qaeda-linked insurgency from within. Senior defectors provide operational intelligence, such as how al Shabaab makes armored vehicle bombs, and insights into its leadership. Most importantly, the government says, those defectors sow suspicion among al Shabaab’s leaders and encourage further defections. But the government’s effort to encourage defections by welcoming, rather than punishing, al Shabaab fighters has angered some Somalis, who say those who commit crimes should be punished. Reuters

U.S. drone kills militants from Haqqani network in Pakistan: Pakistani officials and police say two missiles fired from a U.S. drone struck a home near the Afghan border, killing two militants from the Haqqani network, according to two intelligence officials speaking on the condition of anonymity. Associated Press

Pentagon looks to expand counterterror cooperation with Indonesia: The Pentagon is looking to boost counterterrorism cooperation with an elite Indonesian special forces group, U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis said Tuesday during a visit to Jakarta. The special forces unit, known as Kopassus, has been accused of a range of human rights abuses, including killings and torture, mostly in the 1990s. Mattis says the group has since reformed.

“That was upwards of 20 years ago, and we'll look at it since then,” Mattis said after meeting with Indonesian President Joko Widodo, Defense Minister Ryamizard Ryacudu, and other leaders.  The visit aimed to expand military cooperation with Indonesia, which is modernizing its military and has shown an increased willingness to push back against China’s territorial claims. Voice of America, Washington Post
A Syria plan that breaks the law: “Secretary of State Rex Tillerson recently announced that American troops will remain in Syria even after the fight against the Islamic State has ended,” Cory A. Booker and Oona A. Hathaway write in the New York Times. “If the administration carries through on this promise, it will commit the American people to an indefinite conflict that could bring our troops into direct confrontation with the armed forces of Syria and its closest allies, Iran and Russia. In the process, it will break just about every relevant law on the books.”

The Pentagon should adjust standards for cyber soldiers—as it has always done: “As the Pentagon attempts to recruit more troops into its cyber forces, many have questioned how the armed forces will attract, train, and retain the best and brightest cyber personnel — and whether doing so will require holding cyber soldiers to different standards than traditional troops,” Crispin Burke writes in War on the Rocks. “Though these measures are often fraught with risks, they are risks the U.S. military must undertake if it is to be relevant in cyberspace. “

U.S. air wars under Trump: increasingly indiscriminate, increasingly opaque: “The escalating air war in Somalia is part of a global pattern of an ever broader and unfettered use of air power that has it roots in the Obama administration but which has been spurred on and expanded under Donald Trump,” Julian Borger writes in The Guardian. “The increased reliance on drones, the spread of the counter-terror battle to remote new areas, where reporting is minimal or non-existent, combined with looser rules of engagement and a gung-ho command tone, threaten to combine to create an increasingly indiscriminate, increasingly opaque, global war in which civilians are likely to account for an ever larger share of the victims.”

Counting terrorists: the urgent need for comprehensive data: “Before blaming terrorism on immigrants, the public needs more complete data,” Charles Kurzman writes in Lawfare. “Last week, we filed a Freedom of Information Act request to the Executive Office of the United States Attorneys to start the process of identifying all terrorism prosecutions, including domestic terrorism cases...Our request seeks docket numbers for federal prosecutions in all terrorism-related program categories, including domestic terrorism, so that researchers can develop a fuller picture of violent extremism in the United States.”

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

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