The Soufan Group Morning Brief



FBI Director Christopher Wray publicly clashed with President Trump on Wednesday, condemning a push by House Republicans to release a secret memo that purports to show how the FBI and the Justice Department abused their authorities to obtain a warrant to spy on former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page. In a statement, the FB said it was “provided a limited opportunity to review this memo the day before the committee voted to release it” and expressed “grave concerns about material omissions of fact that fundamentally impact the memo’s accuracy.” The statement underscores concerns among federal law enforcement and intelligence officials who say that the memo, written by House Intelligence Committee staffers, is an inaccurate attack on the FBI and that its release would set a dangerous precedent for releases of classified information that touch on political issues.

The House Intelligence Committee voted along party lines on Monday to release the memo. Democrats on the committee objected and prepared their own 10-page point-by-point rebuttal of the Republican memo, but the committee voted against releasing the Democrats’ memo publicly. Republican Chairman of the committee Devin Nunes described the FBI’s objection on Wednesday as “spurious.” In an opinion piece published on Wednesday in the Washington Post, senior Democrat on the committee Adam Schiff said the Republican memo was intended to set the stage for Trump to fire Special Counsel Robert Mueller, who is leading the Russia investigation. Schiff also said Wednesday night that Republicans made changes to the memo before it was sent to the White House following the committee vote to release it to the public, and called for it to be withdrawn immediately. NBC News

Although White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders said Trump had not yet read the document, the president told lawmakers after his State of the Union address on Tuesday night that there was a “100 percent” chance the memo would be released. White House lawyers have until Friday to determine if any of the memo should be redacted to protect national security. New York Times, Reuters, CNN, Washington Post
The Atlantic: The Peril of Taking on the FBI

A day after President Trump signed an order to the detention center at Guantanamo Bay open, the U.S. military said it will not consider harsh interrogation tactics as part of a new 90-day review of detainee policy ordered by the president. Navy Commander and U.S. military spokeswoman Sarah Higgins said the review would not in any way include consideration of enhanced interrogation techniques. During his campaign, Trump promised to consider reviving the use of waterboarding and “a hell of a lot worse” if elected. After the election, he said now-Defense Secretary James Mattis had convincingly argued against the use of waterboarding.

Trump’s decision also gives the U.S. military the option of adding to the detainee population, however the military said it had not identified any prisoners for possible transfer to the facility. Civil liberties groups condemned Trump’s decision to keep Guantanamo open, as did foreign officials. German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel sharply called the decision to keep the detention center open “not compatible with the principles of humanity, the rule of law and human rights.” Reuters
New York Times: Ordering Guantánamo to Stay Open is One Thing, but Refilling it is Another
Los Angeles Times: Trump's Guantanamo Bay Order May be Largely Symbolic, but it Renews Debate

Nearly 7,000 Syrians who were granted temporary permission to live and work in the U.S. will be allowed to stay in the country under protected status for at least another 18 months, the Trump administration announced on Wednesday. The decision came as a major relief to Syrians and their advocates. Over the past year, the administration has ended Temporary Protected Status for Salvadorans, Haitians and Nicaraguans, which will collectively expose more than 326,000 people to deportation.

Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen said that the situation in Syria justified allowing Syrians to remain in the U.S. “After carefully considering conditions on the ground, I have determined that it is necessary to extend the Temporary Protected Status designation for Syria,” she said in a statement. “It is clear that the conditions upon which Syria’s designation was based continue to exist, therefore an extension is warranted under the statute.”

However, there is a caveat to the extension. Those who came to live in the U.S. after August. 1, 2016, will not be eligible to join the program, a distinction that the Syrian community and its advocates say leaves some Syrians vulnerable. More than 18,000 Syrians have been admitted as refugees since October 2011. New York Times, Reuters

Mueller to interview former spokesman of Trump legal team: Special Counsel Robert Mueller plans to interview the former spokesman of President Donald Trump’s legal team as part of an investigation into potential collusion between Russia and Trump’s 2016 campaign. Mark Corallo had represented Trump’s outside lawyers amid the federal and congressional Russia inquiries until he resigned last summer, after revelations about a June 2016 meeting at Trump Tower between Russians and Trump’s son Donald Jr.. The Mueller team contacted Corallo’s lawyer and said they wanted to discuss the circumstances of his departure, a source said. Reuters

Corallo is reportedly planning to tell Mueller about a previously undisclosed conference call with Trump and Hope Hicks, the White House communications director, in which Hicks said that during that emails written by Donald Trump Jr. before the Trump Tower meeting — in which the younger Trump said he was eager to receive political dirt about Hillary Clinton from the Russians — “will never get out.” That left Corallo with concerns that Ms. Hicks could be contemplating obstructing justice, sources said. New York Times

FBI officials knew of Clinton emails weeks before alerting congress: Top FBI officials were aware for at least a month before alerting Congress that emails potentially related to an investigation of Hillary Clinton had emerged during a key stretch of the 2016 presidential campaign, according to text messages reviewed by The Wall Street Journal. FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe had learned about the thousands of emails by September 28, 2016. Then-FBI Director James Comey informed Congress about them on October 28, 11 days before the presidential election. Comey later said nothing in the new emails had changed the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s decision that Clinton had committed no prosecutable offenses. The lag is one focus of an investigation by the Justice Department’s inspector general into FBI actions in advance of the 2016 election.

Meanwhile, CNN reported that former FBI agent Peter Strzok - who worked on the Justice Department’s probe into possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia and sent dozens of anti-Trump text messages in what conservatives have called evidence of bias - helped write the controversial letter to Congress sent by Comey announcing the reopening of the probe into Clinton’s emails. CNN, The Hill

Mattis considering banning cell phones from Pentagon: Secretary of Defense James Mattis is considering banning U.S. military and civilian personnel from bringing their personal cell phones into the Pentagon, U.S. defense officials familiar with an ongoing review of the issue told CNN. A defense official said intelligence about the risk of cell phone vulnerabilities that is driving the Pentagon’s review is the same intelligence that helped lead to a similar ban of personal cell phones among White House staffers in the West Wing, which went into effect this month. The officials also said that recent revelations that a fitness tracking app that maps people’s exercise habits could pose security risks for U.S. troops underscored the need for the review. CNN

Trump questions deputy attorney general on loyalty: During a meeting in December, President Trump reportedly asked Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein if he was “on my [Trump’s] team.” Rosenstein is overseeing the Justice Department’s Russia probe and appointed Special Counsel Robert Mueller to lead the investigation last year. The exchange appears to be the latest instance of Trump calling for loyalty from senior officials at the Justice Department who are directly involved in the Russia investigation. CNN, The Hill

Lawsuit saying Twitter aided Islamic State thrown out by U.S. appeals court: A federal appeals court in San Francisco ruled on Wednesday that Twitter Inc is not liable to families of two U.S. government contractors killed in an ISIS attack in Jordan for having failed to block the group from using its accounts and messaging services. The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the families failed to show “at least some direct relationship” between their injuries and Twitter’s conduct regarding the November 9, 2015 deaths of Lloyd Fields and James Creach at a police training center in Amman. Reuters

U.S. puts Hamas leader on terrorist blacklist: The U.S. State Department, adding to its official terrorist blacklist on Wednesday, designated the head of the Palestinian militant movement Hamas, Ismail Haniyeh, along with an Iranian-backed group and two Egypt-based groups. In a statement, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said that “these designations target key terrorist groups and leaders...Today’s actions are an important step in denying them the resources they need to plan and carry out their terrorist activities.” Politico

Afghanistan says it has proof attackers trained in Pakistan: Afghanistan says it has proof the militants who carried out a recent series of attacks were trained in Pakistan and that Taliban leaders there are allowed to roam freely, Afghan Interior Minister Wais Ahmed Barmak said Thursday. He told a news conference that the evidence was presented to Pakistan at a meeting attended by Afghanistan’s spy chief, Masoom Stanekzai, and senior Pakistani military and intelligence officials. At the same news conference, Stanekzai said Afghanistan laid out its proof at the meeting and asked Pakistan to take action to prevent further attacks. There was no immediate comment from Pakistan, which has expressed condolences over the recent attacks. Nearly 200 people have been killed over the past month in attacks claimed by the Taliban and an ISIS affiliate. On Thursday, demonstrators protested outside the Pakistani embassy in Kabul in response to the attacks. Associated Press, Reuters

UN and partners seek to aid refugees by Boko Haram: The UN Refugee Agency has launched an interagency funding appeal for $157 million to help over a quarter of a million people affected by Boko Haram in the Lake Chad Basin region. A total of 47 UN agencies and humanitarian organizations will support 208,000 Nigerian refugees in Niger, Cameroon and Chad as part of the 2018 Nigeria Regional Refugee Response Plan. “The Boko Haram crisis lingers on and is far from over,” said UNHCR’s Deputy High Commissioner Kelly Clements. “The world should not forget the victims of this deadly conflict, especially as there appears to be little hope for a return to peace and stability in the near future.” UNHCR

France’s Macron warns Turkey over Syrian operation: French President Emmanuel Macron warned Turkey that its operation against Kurdish militias in northern Syria should not become an excuse to invade the country and said he wanted Ankara to coordinate its action with its allies. “If it turns out that this operation takes a turn other than to fight a potential terrorist threat to the Turkish border and becomes an invasion operation, (then) this becomes a real problem for us,” Macon said Wednesday. Last week, Turkey launched an air and ground offensive in northwest Syria, targeting the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) in the Afrin region, opening a new front in Syria’s civil war that has strained ties between Turkey and its NATO allies. Turkey on Thursday dismissed Macron’s remarks as “insults,” saying Turkey was engaging in “self-defense” in its operation. Reuters

Turkey court orders release of Amnesty International chief: An Istanbul court on Wednesday ordered the release of Amnesty International’s top representative in Turkey, one of the most prominent political prisoners in the country detained under a widespread crackdown against government critics. The court ordered the release of Taner Kilic after more than six months of imprisonment, but did not drop the terrorism charges against him. Kilic is accused of having links to the outlawed movement of Fethullah Gulen, a cleric living in exile who is portrayed by the government as a terrorist. He was the last defendant to be released in a case against 11 human rights advocates who prosecutors say have links to Gulen. The defendants face potentially long prison sentences if convicted in the hearing scheduled for June. New York Times, CNN

Sweden charges Uzbek man with terrorism in truck attack: An Uzbek man who rammed a stolen truck into a crowd in downtown Stockholm in April, killing five people, was charged with terrorism on Tuesday. Rakhmat Akilov, who was on the run from Swedish authorities after his asylum application was turned down, said in online conversations cited by the prosecutor that he wanted to “run over unbelievers.” “His motive is that he wanted to punish Sweden because we are part of the global coalition against ISIS,” Deputy Chief Prosecutor Hans Ihrman said. Akilov’s defense lawyer confirmed that was Akilov’s motive. He said Akilov admits to committing a terror attack and has been cooperative during the investigation. Reuters, Associated Press

Iran sentences American art dealer and his wife to prison: A court in Iran has reportedly handed an Iranian-American man and his wife lengthy prison terms after convicting them on espionage and other charges. The U.S.-based Center for Human Rights in Iran quoted a letter from art gallery owner Karan Vafadari saying that he had been sentenced to 27 years in Iran He added that his wife Afarin Neyssar, an architect who has U.S. permanent residency, received a 16-year sentence.The couple were arrested by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards at Tehran’s international airport in July 2016, according to the organization. BBC News

Egypt’s leader issues warning after election criticism: Egypt’s president on Wednesday threatened to take strong action against anyone trying to disrupt the country’s stability following calls by opposition politicians for a boycott of upcoming presidential elections. The warning was a signal that authorities will not tolerate questioning of the legitimacy of the upcoming presidential elections scheduled for March. Those calling for a boycott have called the election a farce after a string of would-be candidates were arrested, forced out of the race or dropped out in protest. Voice of America

SpaceX rocket launches satellite for NATO: A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket blasted off from Florida on Wednesday carrying into orbit a Luxembourg-made communications satellite designed in part to expand NATO’s surveillance reach and its capability to deter cyber attacks on alliance members. Citing new security threats, a senior NATO official told Reuters in March that the alliance planned to spend more than $3 billion on defense technology, a third of which would go toward satellite communications. Reuters
Diplomats are made, not born: “Global diplomacy today is not very effective, in part because it is misunderstood and starved of resources. The best diplomacy carries out foreign policy professionally, yet most countries let amateurs practice it,” Nicholas Kralev writes in the New York Times. “Governments must end the decades-long culture that views diplomacy training and professional development as a luxury — or worse, as unnecessary. On-the-job training should not be overestimated — it works great if one is lucky to have good mentors, but that’s not a given — and formal preparation should not be undervalued. It can save time and money, and more important, with more professional diplomacy, the world might just become less of a mess.”

After the State of the Union, Trump’s foreign policy is still a mystery: “National security and foreign policy were mainly an afterthought in President Trump’s State of the Union address. What he said was less notable than what he did not say,” Max Boot writes in the Washington Post. “In general, it is hard to know where Trump is headed in foreign policy because of the continuing conflict between his isolationist and protectionist impulses, and the more internationalist worldview of his senior advisers. The State of the Union provided no help in explicating the administration’s path ahead.”

Size doesn’t matter for spies anymore: “When small countries’ intelligence agencies have a better chance of making big discoveries, that gives them something more: leverage,” Mark Galeotti writes in Foreign Policy. “In the cyber espionage age, even small players can make it big from time to time. There are still going to be intelligence haves and have-nots, but it’s now easier for scrappy outsiders to hit pay dirt sometimes.”

How not to design Russia sanctions: “The administration had all the tools and expertise at its disposal, and seemed to be on track to a sensible policy to which Congress had bound it: using a scalpel to go after the specific people who make Putin’s antagonism to the United States possible,” Julia Ioffe writes in The Atlantic. “Instead, it opted for a blow-up toy sledgehammer that is as blunt as it is comical.”
For cutting-edge analysis of the geopolitical events shaping global affairs, read today’s TSC IntelBrief.

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