The Soufan Group Morning Brief


February 16, 2018

Bannon Interviewed in Mueller's Russia Investigation

Steve Bannon, former chief strategist for President Trump, was interrogated for 20 hours over two days this week as part of Special Counsel Robert Mueller's Russia investigation. Mueller's investigators were expected to ask Bannon about the firings of former FBI Director James Comey and former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, people familiar with the inquiry had previously told CNN. Mueller is investigating whether there was any coordination between Trump's campaign and Russians who meddled in the 2016 election, and whether there have been any efforts by the administration to obstruct the ongoing FBI probe into those contacts.

A person familiar with the matter said that Bannon answered all questions posed by the special counsel's team. That differed from Bannon’s appearance on Thursday before the House Intelligence Committee, in which he declined to answer questions about his time during the transition and in the administration, saying that he had been instructed by the White House to invoke executive privilege. Bannon was already under subpoena as lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have been critical of the White House's sweeping interpretation of executive privilege. Lawmakers indicated that his continued non-cooperation might require the committee to consider beginning the process of holding Bannon in contempt of Congress.

At the House hearing, Bannon reportedly refused to answer any questions beyond 25 that had been pre-screened by the White House. The questions that Bannon was authorized to answer, a White House official said, were the product of weeks of negotiations between White House counsel and House Intelligence Committee staff members both parties. CNN, Associated Press, Politico


The Syria war powers memo: why it matters: “Sen. Kaine is right to call on the administration to share its Syria legal memo, and other members of Congress should join that call. No action of our government carries greater weight than directing our military against a new adversary,” Justin Florence and Allison Murphy write in Lawfare. “By insisting on keeping the memo secret, the Trump administration is not only saying it may use legal force that has not been authorized by Congress, but also that it may do so without giving Congress and the public a meaningful oversight role.”

Erdogan’s fatal blind spot: “Erdogan’s continuing tolerance of Islamic State fighters on Turkish soil amounts to passive support and tacit approval. The danger posed by these fighters using Turkey as a staging ground could develop into a far more formidable threat than that currently posed by Kurdish terrorism,” Colin P. Clarke and Ahmet S. Yayla write in Foreign Policy. “Tolerating the Islamic State in order to fight the Kurds is therefore a dangerous and myopic policy.”

No, the Olympics will not defuse the North Korea crisis: “If it plays a high-stakes game of brinkmanship, the United States will paint itself into a corner. By defining the completion of North Korea's ICBM program as an intolerable and strike-inducing event, the Trump administration would be drawing a red line it is not necessarily prepared to hold,” Bruce Klingner writes in the Los Angeles Times. “Eventually, every poker player must deliver on their bet, or be revealed as a bluffer. If the United States comes out looking like a bluffer, American credibility will be gravely eroded.”

Can the UAE and its security forces avoid a wrong turn in Yemen? “AQAP is not the organization it was three or even two years ago. Just like most of Yemen’s political, social, and insurgent groups, it has been changed by the country’s multifaceted conflict,” Michael Horton writes in CTC Sentinel. “In many respects, AQAP has adopted and is guided by a more subtle and indigenized strategy with two primary aims: organizational survival and long-term growth. To achieve these aims, it remains intent on building alliances where it can by leveraging its fighting capabilities and by exploiting local and national grievances.”

This Week's Good News

The World After Trump: How the System Can Endure (Foreign Affairs)
Jake Sullivan writes in Foreign Affairs that “There is no doubt that Trump represents a meaningful threat to the health of both American democracy and the international system. And there is a non-negligible risk that he could drag the country into a constitutional crisis, or the world into a crippling trade war or even an all-out nuclear war. Yet despite these risks, rumors of the international order’s demise have been greatly exaggerated.”

An Act of Forgiveness: Vandalized Arkansas Mosque Pays Legal Fees of Vandal (New York Times)
In a remarkable act of forgiveness, a mosque in Fort Smith, Ark., has paid the legal fees of the man convicted of vandalizing its building in October 2016. In August, the New York Times reported on Abraham Davis, one of the three men convicted of vandalizing the Al Salam mosque, and how he'd sought forgiveness in a letter written from his jail cell, prompting the mosque's leaders to ask the prosecutor for leniency at Davis's sentencing. Despite the mosque's efforts, Davis ended up with the felony conviction, and when he was released on probation, had difficulty finding employment and paying back his steep legal fees.

Several months later, the mosque received a generous donation from a large foundation. And in the ultimate act of forgiveness, the mosque gave a portion of the money it received to Davis to cover the full amount of his legal fees.  


A former Harlem high school teacher and his twin brother were arrested on Thursday in a federal investigation and charged with building an explosive device, according to court papers. Court records said Christian Toro and his brother Tyler Toro were paying minors to strip fireworks of their gunpowder so they could build a bomb. Police found bomb-making materials in the brothers’ home, including 20 pounds of iron oxide, 5 pounds of aluminum powder and a bag containing metal spheres, according to the criminal complaint. “We don’t know at this point in the investigation, other than the criminal charges related to the explosives, the full breadth of what these materials mean,” said John Miller, New York Police Department deputy commissioner of intelligence and counterterrorism.

Both Christian and Tyler Toro pleaded not guilty in court on Thursday. On Wednesday, investigators interviewed multiple students at the Harlem school. They reportedly indicated that at least two students visited an apartment between October 2017 and January 2018 where Christian Toro would pay them $50 per hour to break apart fireworks and store the powder that came out of them in containers. Associated Press, CBS News, Wall Street Journal

A second federal appeals court ruled on Thursday against President Trump’s latest effort to limit travel from eight nations, six of them predominantly Muslim. The decision, from the Fourth Circuit Appeals Court in Richmond, Virginia, will have no immediate practical impact. The Supreme Court agreed last month to hear an appeal from a similar decision from the Ninth Circuit in San Francisco. The justices are due to hear arguments in April and issue a ruling by the end of June. In December, the Supreme Court allowed the travel ban to go into effect in the meantime.

The court ruling on Thursday went further than earlier decisions that found the ban violated federal immigration law but did not address whether it also violated the Constitution. “Examining official statements from President Trump and other executive branch officials, along with the proclamation itself, we conclude that the proclamation is unconstitutionally tainted with animus toward Islam,” 4th Circuit Chief Judge Roger Gregory wrote in the ruling. New York Times, CNBC

The U.S. on Thursday joined Britain in formally blaming Russia for a cyber attack last June that was aimed at Ukraine and crippled computers worldwide. The White House threatened unspecified “international consequences” for the attack, known as NotPetya, which it said “was part of the Kremlin’s ongoing effort to destabilize Ukraine and demonstrates ever more clearly Russia’s involvement in the ongoing conflict.” The condemnation followed a similar statement from the UK Foreign Office, publicly attributing the June 2017 attack to the Russian government. The administration’s action came as intelligence agencies warned that Russia is already meddling in the 2018 midterm elections by using bots and other fake accounts on social media to spread disinformation. New York Times, Financial Times

The Pentagon has launched a new effort to remove U.S. troops from the ranks who are considered unable to deploy, a sensitive decision that could push thousands of people out of the military. Last July, Secretary of Defense James Mattis directed the Pentagon to identify changes to military personnel policies that will “ensure our military is ready to fight today and in the future.” With few exceptions, service members who are considered unable to deploy for 12 months will be processed for “administrative separation,” according to a memo released Thursday by the Pentagon.

Undersecretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness Robert L. Wilkie said 13 to 14 percent of the military — an estimated 286,000 service members — are considered unable to deploy. Service members can be considered unable to deploy for a variety of reasons, including physical injuries, mental-health concerns, legal action and poor physical fitness. Wilkie said in the memo that the new guidelines were released on an interim basis, with a permanent policy to be released later. The military services have until October 1 to begin removing service members, but they can start doing so immediately. Washington Post, ABC News

Judge says GOP memo creates new frontier for pending investigations: A federal judge on Thursday said President Trump’s decision to declassify the Nunes memo had undermined the government's ability to keep mum about its ongoing investigations. During a hearing on a bid by BuzzFeed to get more information about how the Christopher Steele dossier was handled by the government, U.S. District Court Judge Amit Mehta grew frustrated with a Justice Department lawyer who argued that Trump’s declassification of the Republican memo did not alter the contours of the legal dispute. “This isn’t the ordinary case. I don’t know of any time the president has declassified the fact of a counterintelligence investigation … This is a new frontier and it has an impact,” he said. Politico

Spy agencies to brief state officials on election threats: U.S. intelligence and security agencies will meet with senior election officials from all 50 states this weekend to lay out threats to the integrity of U.S. elections and security measures they can take. The office of Director of National Intelligence said the classified briefings are part of an “effort to ensure the integrity and security of the nation’s election infrastructure, particularly as the risk environment evolves.” It said representatives of the office of the DNI, the FBI, and Homeland Security would brief state officials. An official familiar with the planned briefings said state officials would be given classified examples of recent attempted and successful interference by hostile parties in U.S. election systems, as well as advice on possible security enhancements. Reuters

Senate confirms new head of Justice Department’s National Security Division: The Senate on Thursday voted to confirm John Demers to be the new head of the Justice Department’s National Security Division after a Republican senator lifted a hold on his confirmation. Demers served as vice president and assistant general counsel at Boeing after serving in Justice Department’s National Security Division from 2006 to 2009. Demers was confirmed after Colorado Sen. Cory Gardner lifted a hold on his nomination that he had placed over the Justice Department’s shifting attitudes on marijuana law enforcement. The Hill, Reuters

Judge may seek testimony from Mattis in USS Cole stalemate: The military judge in the USS Cole bombing trial said Thursday he was considering calling Secretary of Defense James Mattis to testify to help solve a stalemate over the resignations of key lawyers in the death-penalty case. Air Force Col. Vance Spath said at the conclusion of a four-day session that he may seek to ask Mattis what he was doing about “a rogue defense organization” at the war court. At issue is a decision by the Chief Defense Counsel, Marine Brig. Gen. John Baker, to release the veteran capital-case defender and two Pentagon-paid civilian attorneys from defending Abd al Rahim al Nashiri, the alleged mastermind of the October 2000 USS Cole bombing. Miami Herald

Experts say U.S. wasting billions on nuclear bombs: The U.S. is set to spend billions of dollars upgrading 150 nuclear bombs positioned in Europe, although the weapons may be useless as a deterrent and a potentially catastrophic security liability, according to a new report by arms experts. A third of the B61 bombs in Europe under joint U.S. and NATO control are thought to be kept at Incirlik base in Turkey, 70 miles from the Syrian border. A report on the future of the bombs by an arms control advocacy group, the Nuclear Threat Initiative, said recent events in Turkey and Syria show “just how quickly assumptions about the safety and security of U.S. nuclear weapons stored abroad can change.” The report says the bombs also pose serious liabilities, because of the threat of terrorism or accident, and because they could become targets in the early stages of any conflict with Russia. The Guardian

Two freed after shots fired at SUB in NSA confrontation: Two of the three people who were in an SUV that was stopped and fired upon when it tried to enter the NSA campus without authorization have been released, an FBI spokesman said Thursday. NSA police turned over the other person, who was wanted on allegations of being behind on child support payments, to the Howard County Sheriff's Office. The FBI said the investigation is ongoing to determine why the three people tried to enter a the NSA complex at Fort Meade. Investigators are considering whether the vehicle made a wrong turn and ended up at the NSA gate. Associated Press


Russia acknowledged Thursday that five of its citizens may have been killed by a U.S. strike in Syria, the first known loss of Russian life resulting from U.S. military action in Syria. Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova emphasized, however, that the five victims weren't Russian servicemen. “According to preliminary information, five people, presumably Russian citizens, may have been killed in combat, the circumstances of which are being clarified,” she said.

Until Thursday, both Russian and U.S. officials said they had no information about Russian casualties in the clashes on February 7, when the U.S. launched strikes in retaliation for an attack by pro-Syrian government forces on U.S.-backed Syrian Kurdish fighters in Deir el-Zour. The U.S. military has said it maintained contact with the Russian military in Syria before, during, and after the fighting. The Russian Defense Ministry insisted its troops weren’t involved in the clashes. Associated Press, Financial Times

Meanwhile, sources said separately that 300 men working for a private military firm linked to the Kremlin were either killed or injured in Syria last week. The timing of the casualties reportedly coincided with the February 7 fighting. Reuters

U.S. denies plan for ‘bloody nose’ strike on North Korea: The United States does not have a “bloody nose strategy” for North Korea, U.S. officials said Thursday. A senior White House official, at a briefing Wednesday, told lawmakers no such approach has been adopted, Senators Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) and James Risch (R-ID) said at a Senate hearing on Thursday. The White House had “made it very clear there is no bloody nose strategy for a strike against North Korea,” Shaheen told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee at the confirmation hearing for Susan Thornton for the position of Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia and the Pacific. Thornton confirmed that the Trump administration has no strategy for such a strike, but said Pyongyang would be forced to give up its nuclear weapons “one way or another.” Associated Press

NATO to expand Iraq military training mission: NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg on Thursday announced that the alliance will expand its military training mission in Iraq and help the country develop new academies and schools for its armed forces. NATO already has a small team of military and civilian personnel in Iraq and uses mobile teams to train national forces. “We will scale up,” Stoltenberg said after talks with NATO defense ministers in Brussels, however he declined to say how many personnel the effort would involve or where it would operate. He said the mission would not be used for combat, but rather to train Iraqi officers so they in turn can train their own troops. Associated Press

Afghanistan rejects surprise Taliban peace outreach: Afghanistan’s government spoke out against a surprise overture by the Taliban for peace talks with the U.S., insisting the insurgent group needs to cease fighting first. On Wednesday, the Taliban reached out to the American people asking them to pressure their government to end the near 17-year-old “occupation.” Those words were met with disbelief in Kabul after the group claimed responsibility for attacks in the Afghan capital last month that killed and wounded hundreds. “The Taliban has started the war and the Taliban is continuing the war, if the Taliban want peace they should stop,” a spokesperson for Afghan President Ashraf Ghani said. Bloomberg

Pakistan to send troops to Saudi Arabia to train and advise: Pakistan is sending troops to Saudi Arabia on a “training and advise mission,” three years after it decided against sending soldiers to join the Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen. The exact role the troops will play was unclear, but a statement from the Pakistani army's press wing on Thursday stressed they “will not be employed outside” the kingdom. There are already about 800 Pakistani servicemen in Saudi Arabia, in part to guard Islamic holy sites, but they are not combat troops. Reuters


For cutting-edge analysis of the geopolitical events shaping global affairs, read today’s TSC IntelBrief.
Editor-in-Chief, Karen J. Greenberg, Center on National Security, Fordham Law School

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