The Soufan Group Morning Brief


Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Trump Taps Pompeo for State and Haspel for CIA

President Trump unceremoniously fired Secretary of State Rex Tillerson over Twitter on Monday morning, shortly after Tillerson returned to the U.S. from a five-nation tour of Africa that he had cut short to attend to “pressing matters” in the U.S. In Tillerson’s place, Trump nominated current CIA Director Mike Pompeo, and put forward Gina Haspel, the CIA’s deputy director, to lead the intelligence agency.

As Washington adjusted to the head-spinning turn of events, both picks came in for scrutiny. If confirmed by the Senate, the 61-year-old Haspel, a career spymaster, would be the first woman to lead the CIA. But she also oversaw torture at a secret prison during one of the darkest chapters in the agency’s history, and her nomination is certain to reignite the wrenching debate over their use and the resulting psychological and physical damage to terrorism suspects. After 9/11, Haspel was dispatched to Thailand, where she was put in charge of a secret CIA prison that housed the al Qaeda operative Abu Zubaydah. Haspel arrived to run the prison in late October 2002, after Zubaydah had been waterboarded dozens of times. In mid-November, another Qaeda suspect, Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri arrived. Nashiri, accused of bombing the U.S.S. Cole, was waterboarded three times.

She was also embroiled in another dark episode in the CIA’s interrogation program. In 2005, Jose Rodriguez, then the head of the agency’s clandestine service, ordered the destruction of videotapes of the waterboarding sessions. Haspel, serving as Rodriguez’s chief of staff, was a strong advocate for getting rid of the tapes, former CIA officers said. New York Times, Associated Press, Vox

With Pompeo helming the State Department, Trump will get a true believer in his “America First” views and a bitter critic of the Iran nuclear deal — but also a deep skeptic about whether negotiations will persuade North Korea to abandon its nuclear arsenal. The Atlantic, New York Times, Washington Post

Rumors abound in Washington that the firings are not yet over, and that the national security adviser, Lt. Gen. H. R. McMaster, and the secretary of Veterans Affairs, David Shulkin, would soon follow Tillerson out the door. Wall Street Journal
Washington Post: How Trump Soured on Tillerson as His Top Diplomat
Foreign Policy: A Torturer to Critics, a Consummate Professional to Colleagues
Washington Post/Dan Drezner: 5 Thoughts on Tillerson’s Firing
Politico: Tillerson’s Ouster May Have Killed the Iran Deal


Having a torturer lead the CIA: “When it comes to torture, no American officials have been more practiced in those heinous dark arts than the agents and employees of the Central Intelligence Agency who applied it to terrorism suspects after 9/11,” said the New York Times in an editorial. “Few American officials were so directly involved in that frenzy of abuse, which began under President George W. Bush and was ended by President Barack Obama, as Gina Haspel.”

A controversial track record at CIA, but maybe not a dealbreaker for Democrats: “Haspel will walk into her Senate confirmation hearings with one trait that could win over skeptical Democrats,” said Natasha Bertrand in The Atlantic. “She is not a Trump loyalist.”

Trump is walking into Kim Jong Un’s trap: “President Donald Trump seems to think that he’s off to pick up North Korea’s stockpile of nuclear bombs,” said Jeffrey Lewis in the Washington Post. “The problem is that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has said nothing of the sort. Kim thinks Trump is offering to recognize North Korea as a nuclear power. What could possibly go wrong at their upcoming meeting?”

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The Republican leading the House Intelligence Committee’s investigation into Russian election interference softened his characterization of a key investigative finding on Tuesday, just a day after Republicans announced that they had completed a draft of their report.

Rep. Michael Conaway of Texas had told reporters on Monday that the committee’s Republicans had extensively reviewed a 2017 assessment by American intelligence agencies and found only one area of disagreement: that the Russians had favored Donald J. Trump’s candidacy. “We disagree with the narrative that they were trying to help Trump,” Conaway said.

Speaking again with reporters on Tuesday, Conaway said it was a matter of interpretation whether the Russians were trying to hurt Hillary Clinton or explicitly help his candidacy. “Everybody gets to make up their own mind whether they were trying to hurt Hillary or help Trump,” he said. “It’s kind of a glass half full, glass half empty.” New York Times

A federal judge in Brooklyn handed down a 45-year prison sentence Tuesday to a Texas native convicted last fall of supporting al-Qaeda and conspiring to murder Americans. Muhanad Mahmoud al-Farekh, 32, of Houston, was captured in Pakistan in 2015, transferred to U.S. custody and questioned, and eventually brought to the United States for prosecution.

Prosecutors said Farekh, who was raised in Dubai, served in al Qaeda’s external operations unit from 2007 to 2014. In March 2007, Farekh and two fellow students from the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, Canada, traveled to Pakistan intending to fight American troops, they said.

On Jan. 19, 2009, al-Qaeda operatives drove two trucks loaded with explosives to the gate of Forward Operating Base Chapman in Khost, Afghanistan. The first truck blew up, wounding several bystanders, including a U.S. serviceman and a pregnant Afghan woman. The second truck hit the blast crater left by the first truck and failed to explode. Farekh, prosecutors said, helped build the second truck bomb. Forensic technicians recovered 18 latent fingerprints from the device that matched Farekh’s. Washington Post, Reuters

Three men from rural central Illinois were charged Tuesday with illegally possessing a machine gun, and are suspected of bombing a mosque in Minnesota and attempting to bomb an abortion clinic in Illinois last year. While the complaint does not charge the men with crimes related to the bombing episodes, the authorities said that they had gathered evidence indicating that the men were responsible for them. The investigation is continuing,

One of the men, Michael McWhorter, admitted to the police that he participated in the bombing in Bloomington, Minn., on Aug. 5 and the attempted bombing in Illinois on Nov. 7, a federal affidavit said. McWhorter said that he and the two other men involved did not intend to kill anyone, but had chosen to bomb the mosque to “scare” Muslims “out of the country.” The men — McWhorter, 29, Michael B. Hari, 47, and Joe Morris, 22 — believed that Muslims “push their beliefs on everyone else,” the affidavit said. Star Tribune


A roadside bomb blast in Gaza Tuesday morning damaged several vehicles in the convoy of the Palestinian Authority’s prime minister, Rami Hamdallah, in what the authority called a failed assassination attempt.

No group immediately claimed responsibility, and Hamdallah was unharmed, but the attack came amid a tense standoff between his Ramallah-based government, dominated by the Fatah political faction, and the Islamist militant group Hamas.

Adding to the intrigue was the explosion’s timing: It came hours before the start of a White House meeting being billed as a “brainstorming session” on how to solve the Gaza crisis. The Palestinian Authority — furious over the Trump administration’s actions in recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, moving its embassy there from Tel Aviv, and cutting aid for Palestinian refugees — refused to attend. Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Reuters, New York Times

More than a hundred people - many of them sick and wounded, along with their families - left the rebel-held enclave of eastern Ghouta in Syria on Tuesday after rebel forces reached a medical evacuation agreement with the Syrian government’s ally, Russia. The deal, brokered by the United Nations, came weeks after government forces began a ferocious assault to retake the area on the outskirts of Damascus. Wall Street Journal
NBC News: U.S. Hits Back at Russia Claims, Says Moscow Is Complicit in Syrian Atrocities

The desolate terrain of Egypt’s Western Desert is emerging as a new frontier in the global fight against terrorism. Militant groups linked to the Islamic State and al Qaeda are using the desert as both a haven and a crossing point for smuggling fighters, weapons and illicit goods from Libya, where lawlessness rules. Washington Post

President Rodrigo Duterte will withdraw the Philippines from the Rome Statute, the treaty that established the International Criminal Court, according to a statement released to reporters in Manila on Wednesday. The move comes about a month after the ICC opened a preliminary examination into thousands of deaths linked to his violent campaign against suspected drug users and dealers. Washington Post

Russian exile found dead in his London home: A Russian exile who was close friends with the late oligarch Boris Berezovsky has been found dead in his London home. Nikolai Glushkov, 68, was discovered by his family and friends late on Monday night. The cause of death is not yet clear, and counterterrorism police are reportedly investigating. Guardian

5 detained in French counterterror probe: French counterterrorism police have detained five people suspected of helping jihadis who left France to join the battlefields of Syria and Iraq. Associated Press


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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