The Soufan Group Morning Brief


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THURSDAY, JANUARY 25, 2018
TRUMP SAYS HE IS WILLING TO SPEAK TO MUELLER UNDER OATH

President Trump said on Wednesday that he was willing and eager to be interviewed under oath by Special Counsel Robert Mueller in the investigation into allegations of Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. election. “I’m looking forward to it, actually,” Trump said. His attorneys have been talking to Mueller’s team about an interview, according to sources with knowledge of the investigation. “I would like to do it as soon as possible,” Trump said. He also suggested that his efforts to defend himself against damaging allegations had been unfairly misinterpreted as wrongdoing. “There’s no collusion. I couldn’t have cared less about Russians having to do with my campaign,” he said. Politico, New York Times

Ty Cobb, the White House lawyer leading the response to the investigation, said Trump was speaking hurriedly and intended only to say that he was willing to meet with Mueller’s team. “He’s ready to meet with them, but he’ll be guided by the advice of his personal counsel,” Cobb said. CNN, Reuters

Trump’s remarks come amid news that Mueller’s team interviewed both Attorney General Jeff Sessions and CIA Director Mike Pompeo about whether Trump tried to obstruct justice in the Russia probe. Sources told CNN that Pompeo was interviewed as a “peripheral witness” in Mueller’s investigation and that the interview focused, in part, on Trump's suggestion that Pompeo publicly say there was no collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia. CNN
Related:
Bloomberg: Mueller Almost Done With Obstruction Part of Trump Probe, Sources Say

DUELING MEMOS ESCALATE CONGRESSIONAL FIGHT OVER RUSSIA INQUIRY
The Justice Department warned the House Intelligence Committee chairman, Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA), on Wednesday that it was “extraordinarily reckless” for Republicans to push to release a committee memo that draws on classified information to portray the origins of the Russian investigation as scandalous. In a letter to Nunes, assistant attorney general Stephen Boyd wrote, “we do not understand why the committee would possibly seek to disclose classified and law enforcement sensitive information without first consulting with the relevant members of the intelligence community.”

The rebuke came as Democrats announced that they had drafted a document that they say will counter Republican efforts to discredit the FBI probe into Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential campaign. The Republican memo, which was written by Nunes’s staff, reportedly claims that the FBI abused its powers under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act to spy on the Trump campaign. Democrats did not know it existed until a committee meeting last week, during which its members voted along party lines to share it with the rest of the House. New York Times, Washington Post, The Hill

FBI failed to save texts from thousands of phones in glitch: The FBI failed to save text messages sent from thousands of cellphones, reportedly due to the same technical glitch that affected the retention of messages from two senior bureau officials who investigated both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, a Justice Department official said. President Trump and Republican lawmakers have raised questions about the missing messages between senior FBI lawyer Lisa Page and senior counterintelligence agent Peter Strzok. The glitch may cast doubt on the theory that the two officials’ texts were intentionally withheld. But it could also throw into question the FBI’s ability to retain records that could be important to internal and other investigations. Washington Post

Trump says he doesn't remember asking acting FBI director about 2016 vote: President Donald Trump said Wednesday that he did not remember asking former acting director of the FBI Andrew McCabe who he voted for in the 2016 presidential election. The Washington Post first reported Tuesday that Trump asked McCabe how he voted during a White House meeting last May, shortly after the president fired former FBI Director James Comey. “I don't think I did,” Trump said Wednesday. “I don't remember asking him that question.” ABC News

Mysterious bank deposits fueled suspicion of former CIA officer: While American intelligence authorities investigated a possible CIA mole in recent years, they discovered that one former agency officer had received hundreds of thousands of dollars in unexplained bank deposits, current and former government officials said on Wednesday. The money deepens the mystery surrounding Jerry Chun Shing Lee, the former CIA officer, who faces a charge of keeping national security secrets in his notebooks after he left government. It also explains why many American law enforcement officials suspected that Lee provided information to China. The FBI arrested Lee this month after a lengthy counterintelligence investigation that began when the CIA’s informant network in China was compromised and many of its assets were imprisoned or killed. New York Times

Alphabet Inc. unveils business unit devoted to cyber security: Alphabet Inc. launched a new business unit on Wednesday that will sell cyber security software to Fortune 500 companies, the latest move by the parent of Google to become a big player in corporate computing. The new unit, dubbed Chronicle, is betting on the premise that machine learning software can sift and analyze massive stores of data to detect cyber threats more quickly and precisely than is possible with traditional methods. Reuters


TRUMP ISSUES STERN WARNING TO TURKEY OVER SYRIA OPERATION
President Trump urged Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Wednesday to scale back his country’s assault on Kurdish positions in Syria, signaling mounting U.S. concern that Ankara’s operation will jeopardize the U.S. campaign against ISIS and undermine hopes for peace talks aimed at ending the war in Syria.

The call took place less than a week after Turkey launched an offensive on Kurdish positions in Afrin, a Kurdish enclave along Syria’s border with Turkey. In the call, Trump told Erdogan that the intensifying conflict “risks undercutting our shared goals in Syria.” According to a White House statement, Trump “urged Turkey to de-escalate, limit its military actions, and avoid civilian casualties and increases to displaced persons and refugees.” Washington Post

Trump’s comments, however, were immediately disputed by Turkish officials. State-run Anadolu news agency reported that the official U.S. summary “differed from the truth discussed between the Turkish and U.S. President’s phone conversation.” A message sent to journalists from an unnamed Turkish government official also refuted U.S. accounts. “President Trump did not share any 'concerns about escalating violence' with regard to the ongoing military operation in Afrin,” it said. CNN
Related:
Associated Press: Official Says U.S. Would Prefer Turkey Withdraw From Afrin
Associated Press: Shades of Gray in Turkey’s Stated Syria Goals
CNN: Foreign Fighters in Syria Turn Their Weapons on Turkey

U.S. IMPOSES NEW SANCTIONS ON NORTH KOREA
The U.S. on Wednesday slapped sanctions on six North Korean ships, 16 individuals, and nine companies that it said had facilitated Pyongyang’s weapons programs, in a continuing effort to further isolate the regime. The targets of the new sanctions, released by the Treasury Department, include North Korean and Chinese trading companies and the North Korea’s ministry of oil. They also hit North Korean representatives in China and Russia who are members of the Workers’ Party of Korea and who have helped North Korea transfer chemicals and equipment used for weapons production. The sanctions were announced shortly after Japan said one of its spy planes had photographed a North Korean tanker that was probably violating sanctions by transferring cargo from one ship to another. New York Times, Washington Post, Financial Times

North Korea sends rare announcement to all Koreans, calls for unification: North Korea sent a rare announcement addressed to “all Koreans at home and abroad” on Thursday, saying they should make a “breakthrough” for unification without the help of other countries, its state media said. The message reportedly called for a de-escalation of military tensions on the peninsula. State media also warned against foreign influence, saying Pyongyang will “smash” those who oppose reunification, Reuters reported. Reuters, The Hill

U.S. says four Americans killed in Kabul hotel attack: The U.S. said four American citizens were killed and two others were wounded in the Taliban attack over the weekend on the Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul, Afghanistan. The State Department had previously confirmed that multiple Americans were killed and injured, but had declined to give an exact figure until family members could be properly notified. Twenty-two people, including 14 foreigners, were killed in the 13-hour siege of the hotel. Politico reported that one of the Americans killed was Glenn Selig, a spokesman for Rick Gates, the former Trump campaign official indicted in the Russia investigation. Associated Press, Politico

Ghana says it cannot deport Yemeni ex-Guantanamo detainees: Two ex-Guantanamo Bay detainees transferred to Ghana by the U.S. have been granted refugee status and now cannot be deported even though the contractual period they must stay has elapsed, the government said on Wednesday. The Yemeni nationals were sent to Ghana in January 2016 for an initial two-year period after spending more than a decade at the U.S.-operated Guantanamo Bay prison for suspected terrorism. The opposition in Ghana has been pushing for their deportation, saying that the U.S. no longer has shared responsibility for making sure the suspects pose no danger. Reuters

Suspected U.S. drone kills Taliban-linked commander: A missile from a suspected U.S. drone killed an Afghan militant commander as he was taking a shower early Wednesday, according to Pakistani police and Taliban sources. Nasir Mahmood, a member of the Taliban-linked Haqqani network, was in a house in Pakistan's semi-autonomous Federally Administered Tribal Areas near the border with Afghanistan when he was killed. Taliban sources confirmed that Mahmood and shared a photo of his body as he was being being prepared for burial. NBC News


French court hears first trial linked to 2015 Paris attacks: The first trial related to the 2015 ISIS attacks on Paris opened on Wednesday after initial concerns that a national protest by prison guards would block a suspect’s transfer to the Paris court house. There had been fears that Jawad Bendaoud, who is accused of helping two of the attackers hide from police, would not be attend the trial after guards protesting over prison working conditions blocked the entrance of the Fresnes prison, but police managed to clear the main access point to the prison

Bendaoud provided lodging to the two attackers but has claimed he didn't know they were two of the Paris attackers or even wanted extremists. He faces up to six years in prison if convicted. About 500 victims of the attacks and their relatives have joined the legal action as civil parties in the case, or applied to be registered as plaintiffs. Associated Press, CBS News
TOP OP-EDS
Two notable omissions in the Mattis National Defense Strategy: “Make no mistake—the National Defense Strategy is laudable for many reasons. But the document should have addressed climate change and special operations, given the unavoidable role they play in how and where the U.S. military operates—now and in the future,” Benjamin Haas and Mark Nevitt write in Just Security. “Instead, basic questions related to these topics remain unaddressed or unanswered. Eventually, though, the issues will likely catch up with us, and the government will have to answer to the public.”

Turkey’s Afrin offensive and America’s future in Syria: “The Syrian war is still in flux. For the United States, withdrawing will require making tough choices about a regime that Washington still wants to remove,” Aaron Stein writes in Foreign Affairs. “In the short term, things will get more complicated. In the longer term, the outcome is clear: the regime will win its war against much of the opposition. For the United States the challenge now is to recognize that victory and leave on acceptable terms.”

The U.S. has to back Turkey in Syria: “We owe our Kurdish partners a serious effort to mitigate the impact of the Turkish operation in Afrin, and should do everything we can over time to help ease tensions between Turks and Kurds around the region,” James Stavridis writes in Bloomberg. “But the overall U.S. strategic interest lies in keeping Turkey aligned with NATO and the trans-Atlantic community.  It would be a geopolitical mistake of near-epic proportions to see Turkey drift out of that orbit and end up aligned with Russia and Iran in the Levant.”

The White House is right to suspend aid to Pakistan: “Those in Washington who hope that freezing aid may suddenly scare Islamabad back into line will almost certainly be disappointed. The national security interests of the United States and Pakistan diverge on Afghanistan and South Asia to such an extent that even tougher measures...are unlikely to be potent enough to sever Pakistan’s ties with the militants its intelligence services have courted for decades,” Daniel R. DePetris writes in Reuters. “American policymakers must take a step back, thoroughly evaluate the U.S. relationship with Pakistan, and determine whether further cooperation is even possible.”
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