The Soufan Group Morning Brief


Wednesday, February 28, 2018

NSA Chief: Trump Has Given No Orders to Counter Russian Meddling

The head of the National Security Agency told lawmakers Tuesday that he hadn’t been formally asked by President Donald Trump to take steps to disrupt Russian election hacking activity at its source.

Adm. Michael S. Rogers, the departing head of the National Security Agency and the military’s Cyber Command, said that he was using the authorities he had to combat the Russian attacks. But under questioning during testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, he acknowledged that the White House had not asked the relevant agencies — the main American spy and defense arms charged with conducting cyber operations — to find ways to counter Moscow, or granted them new authorities to do so.

“President Putin has clearly come to the conclusion that there’s little price to pay and that therefore ‘I can continue this activity,’” said Admiral Rogers, who is set to retire in April. “Clearly what we have done hasn’t been enough.”

Rogers’s testimony was the second time this month that a senior American intelligence official had said that Russia’s efforts to meddle in American elections did not end in 2016, and that the Trump administration had taken no extraordinary steps to stop them. He and other intelligence leaders warned two weeks ago on Capitol Hill that Russia was using a digital strategy to worsen political and social divisions in the United States, and all the intelligence chiefs said they had not been expressly asked by the White House to find a way to punish Russia for its efforts. Washington Post, New York Times, NBC News, Wall Street Journal


Six counterterrorism lessons from the Syrian war: “The war and associated diplomacy offers us much to chew on, but the counterterrorism implications are particularly striking—for Syria is both a counterterrorism success and a counterterrorism failure,” said Daniel Byman in Lawfare. “The Islamic State, one of the most vicious and powerful terrorist groups the world has ever seen, emerged out of the conflict. But the United States and its allies have also weakened the group and managed the terrorism threat. This mixed record offers us many lessons for counterterrorism.”

An open letter to the Taliban: “Your February 14, 2018, open letter to the American people asked us to ‘evaluate the future of American forces in light of the prevailing realities’ in Afghanistan. I can answer only for myself, as an academic and former American diplomat who has been trying to understand Afghanistan’s realities for thirty-five years,” said Barnett Rubin in the New Yorker. “I have concluded that your opponents underestimate your independence and abilities. But you may also underestimate theirs.”

Defeating ISIS in Syria is just the beginning: “What does the United States hope to achieve in Syria by investing so heavily in the SDF?” asks Robert Ford in The Atlantic. “The United States appears ready and all too eager to bind its fate to one uncontrolled actor in a complex civil war without understanding how the other actors will respond.”

Cocaine bust is latest sign of Putin’s weakness: “The mind-boggling news story of cocaine-filled suitcases at the Russian embassy school in Buenos Aires demonstrates that the tolerance President Vladimir Putin's regime has shown for all kinds of moonlighting and freelancing by its servants has gone too far,” said Leonid Bershidsky in

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Officials in at least four countries have privately discussed ways they can manipulate Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and senior adviser, by taking advantage of his complex business arrangements, financial difficulties and lack of foreign policy experience, the Washington Post reported late Tuesday.

Among those nations discussing ways to influence Kushner to their advantage were the United Arab Emirates, China, Israel and Mexico. Kushner’s contacts with certain foreign government officials have raised concerns inside the White House and are a reason he has been unable to obtain a permanent security clearance, according to the report.

Kushner’s interim security clearance was downgraded last week from the top-secret to the secret level, which should restrict the regular access he has had to highly classified information.

H.R. McMaster, President Trump’s national security adviser, learned that Kushner had contacts with foreign officials that he did not coordinate through the National Security Council or officially report. The issue of foreign officials talking about their meetings with Kushner and their perceptions of his vulnerabilities was a subject raised in McMaster’s daily intelligence briefings. Washington Post, New York Times, Wall Street Journal

A California man has been charged with trying to travel to Libya to join Islamic State, New York federal prosecutors announced Tuesday. In a criminal complaint unsealed in Brooklyn federal court, prosecutors said that Bernard Augustine, 21, traveled to Tunisia in February 2016 and from there attempted to reach Islamic State-controlled territory in Libya.

Augustine, of Keyes, California, has been charged with attempting to provide material support to a foreign terrorist organization. He faces up to 20 years in prison if convicted. Prosecutors said that Augustine was arrested and imprisoned in Tunisia before Tunisian authorities turned him over to the United States. Reuters, Associated Press

Supreme Court appears divided over data case: The Supreme Court appeared to be divided Tuesday as it struggled to interpret whether a three-decade-old federal law gives the U.S. government the right to access Americans' emails stored overseas. Politico, New York Times

Mueller’s team asks about Trump’s business dealings in Russia: Investigators for special counsel Robert Mueller have recently been asking witnesses about Donald Trump's business activities in Russia prior to the 2016 presidential campaign as he considered a run for president, CNN reports.

Hicks tells lawmakers she sometimes tells ‘white lies’ for Trump: Hope Hicks, the White House communications director, told House investigators on Tuesday that her work for President Trump, who has a reputation for exaggerations and outright falsehoods, had occasionally required her to tell white lies. But after extended consultation with her lawyers, she insisted that she had not lied about matters material to the Russia investigation. New York Times

Hicks’ interview continued for nine hours, and she refused to answer most questions posed to her, particularly about events that have occured since Trump became president. Washington Post

U.S. Treasury slaps sanctions on more ISIS targets: The U.S. targeted several groups affiliated with ISIS with sanctions on Tuesday, stressing its continued efforts to dismantle the organization amid the group’s deterioration of its caliphate in Iraq and Syria. The U.S. State Department added Abu Musab Al-Barnawi of Nigeria and Mahad Moalim of Somalia, and seven groups from Bangladesh, Egypt, the Philippines, Somalia, Nigeria and Tunisia to its sanctions list. Wall Street Journal, Reuters


North Korea has been shipping supplies to the Syrian government that could be used in the production of chemical weapons, United Nations experts contend.

The evidence of a North Korean connection comes as the United States and other countries have accused the Syrian government of using chemical weapons on civilians, including recent attacks on civilians in the Damascus suburb of eastern Ghouta using what appears to have been chlorine gas.

The supplies from North Korea include acid-resistant tiles, valves and thermometers, according to a report by United Nations investigators. North Korean missile technicians have also been spotted working at known chemical weapons and missile facilities inside Syria. New York Times, NPR, Wall Street Journal

The Afghan president, Ashraf Ghani, has offered to recognise the Taliban as a legitimate political group as part of a process that he said could lead to talks to end more than 16 years of war. The offer, made on Wednesday at the start of an international conference aimed at creating a platform for peace discussions, is the latest signal from the western-backed government and the Taliban of greater willingness to consider dialogue.

Ghani proposed a ceasefire and the release of prisoners as part of a range of options including elections, involving the militant group in the political process, and a constitutional review under a pact with the Taliban.

“We are making this offer without preconditions in order to lead to a peace agreement,” he said in opening remarks to the conference attended by officials from about 25 countries involved in the so-called Kabul process. Guardian, Reuters

Boko Haram’s push puts pressure on Nigeria’s president: Boko Haram’s abduction of more than 100 Nigerian schoolgirls last week is sending political shock waves through a key U.S. counterterrorism ally in Africa as President Muhammadu Buhari weighs whether to seek re-election. Wall Street Journal

Blacklisted Iranian official angers U.N. diplomats: A speech by Seyyed Alireza Avaei, Iran’s minister of justice and prosecutor of the country’s Islamic revolution, at the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva on Tuesday caused an uproar because of his role in human rights violations. New York Times


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


Moderated by Judge Kevin T. Duffy
J. Gilmore Childers
Henry John DePippo
Lev L. Dassin
Michael Garcia
Austin V. Campriello
Hassen Abdellah
Wednesday, February 28, 6PM
Fordham Law School

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Editor-in-Chief, Karen J. Greenberg, Center on National Security, Fordham Law School

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