The Soufan Group Morning Brief


Thursday, March 15, 2018

Britain Expels 23 Russian Diplomats Over Nerve Attack on Ex-Spy

Relations between the UK and Russia plunged on Wednesday to icy levels not seen since the Cold War as Prime Minister Theresa May expelled 23 Russian diplomats, severed high-level contacts, and vowed both open and covert action against Kremlin meddling after a chemical attack on a former Russian double agent in Britain.

Russia denies any involvement in the attack on ex-spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia, who have been critical and hospitalized since they were found unconscious on March 4 on a bench in the southern English city of Salisbury. May had given Moscow until midnight on Tuesday to explain how the Soviet-made Novichok nerve agent came to be deployed on the streets of Salisbury, saying either the Russian state was responsible or had lost control of a stock of the substance.

May said “there is no alternative conclusion other than that the Russian state was culpable for the attempted murder of Mr. Skripal and his daughter.” She said the attack “represents an unlawful use of force by the Russian state against the United Kingdom.”

Britain has received statements of support from the U.S, the EU and NATO and will reportedly seek to coordinate an international response to the Russian attack. U.S. Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley told a Security Council meeting called by Britain that Washington believes Russia was responsible for the attack. She urged the council to take “immediate, concrete measures.” Reuters, BBC News

Russia’s ambassador to the UN on Wednesday repeated Moscow’s denial that it had anything to do with the poisoning and called for proof of its involvement. The Russian Foreign Ministry said Moscow would swiftly retaliate against Britain’s measures, which it called “crude” and “hostile.” Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Moscow would expel UK diplomats “soon” in retaliation. Associated Press, CNN, BBC News
Bloomberg: UK Braced for Russian Response in Spy Poisoning Rift
The Guardian: UK Sanctions Against Russia: What Impact Will They Have?
Washington Post: After UK Slaps Penalties on Russia, Attention Turns to Trump
New York Times: Adding Insult to Injury, British Royal Family to Boycott World Cup in Russia


Gina Haspel’s CIA nomination ignores her history of torture and sets a dangerous precedent: “There is no way to sugarcoat this: Haspel was actively complicit in the (legal and fully CIA-and-White House sanctioned) torture program that was used against terrorism suspects,” Karen J. Greenberg writs in NBC News. “Haspel’s confirmation to the position of CIA director would be a devastating capitulation to the dark forces that the country ostensibly left behind, and a sign to Americans — and the world — that we have learned nothing from a program that was morally, legally and professionally indefensible.”

Tell the truth about our longest war: “The nearly 17-year-old Afghanistan conflict, the longest war in United States history, will not end on the battlefield. It can be resolved only at the negotiating table. So, the bold offer last month from President Ashraf Ghani of Afghanistan to negotiate with the Taliban ‘without preconditions’ is a welcome initiative. But it faces daunting obstacles,” Susan E. Rice writes in the New York Times. “Assuming the Taliban refuse Mr. Ghani’s offer, it’s timely to ask: Is there an alternative to an indefinite United States military presence in Afghanistan?”

The tragedy of Secretary Tillerson’s last trip to Africa: “Tillerson’s sleepwalker trip was a missed opportunity to signal a new course in U.S. relations with Africa, one that treats the continent as a source of economic growth and opportunities for investment,” Karen Attiah writes in the Washington Post. “It was a reminder not only of America’s diminished moral standing, but also that Washington is sitting on the sidelines while other countries are becoming increasingly more engaged in Africa, for better or worse.”

Where is Malaysia’s new counterterrorism center in its Islamic State fight? “In response to increased government online monitoring, extremists have also been adjusting their tactics as well,” Prashanth Parameswaran writes in The Diplomat. “This reinforces the logic of a comprehensive approach to counterterrorism that ties various pieces together, which includes not just monitoring or arrests, but promoting greater education and awareness, investing in better rehabilitation programs, and ensuring that the broader management of political extremism and radicalization is kept in check.”

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Prosecutors and defense attorneys painted radically different pictures of Noor Salman, the wife of Pulse nightclub shooter Omar Mateen, at the opening of her federal terrorism trial on Wednesday. Salman is charged with providing material support to a foreign terrorist organization and obstruction of justice for allegedly misleading law enforcement agents investigating the June 12, 2016, massacre.

Florida Assistant U.S. Attorney James Mandolfo told jurors that Salman spent the weeks preceding the shooting helping her husband prepare for the massacre. Mandolfo said Salman knew in spring 2016 that her husband was stockpiling weaponry and ammunition, casing potential targets, and adding her name to his bank accounts.

Mandolfo told jurors that in the early hours of the investigation, Salman lied repeatedly to investigators about what she knew, only later admitting to an FBI agent that in the days preceding the attack, Mateen asked her, “How bad would it be if a club got attacked?” He also reportedly asked her, “What would make people more upset: an attack at a club or an attack at Disney?”

Salman has pleaded not guilty, and her defense cast her as a victim. “Omar Mateen was a monster. Noor Salman was a mother, not a monster,” Defense attorney Linda Moreno said. “Her only sin is that she married a monster.” She said her client was physically and verbally abused by Matteen for years.  Associated Press, CNN, ABC News, NBC News

Attorney General Jeff Sessions is reviewing a recommendation to fire former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe, just days before he is scheduled to retire on Sunday. In the wake of repeated public and private criticism from President Trump, McCabe stepped down in January and announced plans to take accumulated leave in advance of his retirement. But if he is fired before Sunday, he could be deprived of the pension for which he is currently eligible. The FBI’s Office of Professional Responsibility reportedly recommended the firing in response to allegations in an inspector general’s report, which concluded that McCabe misled investigators about his decision to authorize FBI officials to speak to the media about an investigation into the Clinton Foundation. CNN, NBC News, Politico

President Donald Trump’s picks for Secretary of State and CIA director are running into potential roadblocks among Republicans in the Senate, suggesting a difficult confirmation process. Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) said Wednesday he will oppose Trump’s decision to replace Secretary of State Rex Tillerson with CIA Director Mike Pompeo and to nominate Deputy CIA Director Gina Haspel to lead the spy agency.

Paul said he worried that Pompeo had not drawn a crucial lesson from the Iraq war — that “regime change has unintended consequences” — and that Pompeo, one of the most vocal critics of the 2015 Iran deal, could lead the U.S. into conflict with Tehran.

Additionally, Paul expressed concern over Haspel’s record on torture. She has drawn scrutiny from both parties for her role on a team that oversaw the CIA’s detention and interrogation of suspected terrorists. Paul also noted concerns about Pompeo’s previously stated support for waterboarding and other interrogation techniques. Bloomberg, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post

Defense Secretary James Mattis urged lawmakers on Wednesday to reject a bipartisan proposal that seeks to cut off U.S. support for the Saudi-led bombing campaign in Yemen. In a letter to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Mattis warned that the proposal would undermine U.S. interests in the Middle East, jeopardize the country’s partnership with Saudi Arabia, and increase the risk of a regional war with Iran. U.S. support for the Saudi campaign - which includes the provision of precision-guided weapons and aerial refueling of Saudi coalition jet fighters - has drawn bipartisan concern in Congress.

The letter from Mattis comes ahead of a possible vote next week in the Senate co-authored by Sens. Mike Lee, Bernie Sanders, and Chris Murphy, that calls on President Trump to end U.S. support to the Saudi campaign. Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is also expected to arrive in Washington next week to meet with President Trump. Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, The Hill

Sources say differences on North Korea key to Trump’s Tillerson decision: Differences over how to deal with North Korea’s nuclear challenge were a key factor in President Trump’s decision to replace Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State, according to sources familiar with the internal deliberations. Tillerson had been an early advocate of talks with North Korea, while Trump wanted to keep applying maximum pressure on Pyongyang before responding to an invitation to meet Kim Jong Un. That led to fear that Tillerson might be too willing to make concessions to North Korea, sources said. Reuters

Trump’s pick for NSA chief faces second confirmation hearing: U.S. senators will grill President Trump’s pick to lead the NSA on the government’s surveillance reach and a range of cyber security issues on Thursday, as he faces his second confirmation hearing to lead the agency. Lieutenant General Paul Nakasone is expected to face questions about alleged election meddling by Russia, international cyber defense, and warrantless digital spying as he appears before the Senate Intelligence Committee. Reuters

New Jersey man admits to planning bomb attack in support of ISIS: A New Jersey man admitted on Tuesday that he planned to construct and use a pressure cooker bomb in New York on behalf of ISIS, according to U.S. Attorney Craig Carpenito and Assistant Attorney General for National Security John Demers. Twenty-one-year-old Gregory Lepsky, who was arrested in February 2017, pled guilty in federal court on Tuesday to attempting to provide material support to a designated foreign terrorist organization. Associated Press

FBI to improve process for handling tips in wake of shooting: The FBI will beef up its procedures for documenting and following up on investigative leads after mishandling detailed tips about the teenager who shot and killed 17 people at a high school in Parkland, FL, a top official said on Wednesday. Reuters


U.S. Green Berets working with government forces in Niger killed 11 ISIS militants in a firefight in December, the U.S. military acknowledged for the first time on Wednesday. The battle occurred two months after four U.S. soldiers died in an ambush in another part of Niger — and after senior commanders had imposed stricter limits on military missions in the West African country.

No American or Nigerien forces were harmed in the December gun battle. But the combat — along with at least 10 other previously unreported attacks on American troops in West Africa between 2015 and 2017 — indicates that the deadly October 4 ambush was not an isolated episode. New York Times

The U.S. is bolstering its efforts to help the Afghan government squash a rash of deadly high-profile attacks in Kabul through Special Operations raids, intelligence to map out residents, and additional military advising. Army Gen. John W. Nicholson Jr. said that defending Kabul is the main goal for the U.S.-led military coalition in Afghanistan. Although the number of bombings in the city has remained fairly constant, they have increased in size, killing hundreds of people in the past year. “Yes, the Taliban is in the city,” Nicholson said. “Yes, there are facilitation networks in the city. These networks need to be identified and destroyed, and then the safe houses or whatever locations they have developed need to be identified and eliminated.” Washington Post

Syria marks seven years in civil war: Syrian government forces and Russian aircraft blanketed parts of the besieged, rebel-held enclave of eastern Ghotua with airstrikes and rocket fire on Thursday, activists said, as Syrians marked seven years in their country’s civil war. Activists and monitoring groups reported that government and Russian aircraft were using napalm-like incendiary weapons to spread fires in some towns in eastern Ghouta. Meanwhile, the International Committee of the Red Cross managed to send an aid convoy into the town of Douma in the besieged area on Thursday. Associated Press

Bomb kills 9 in eastern Pakistan: A bombing near a police checkpoint killed five police and four bystanders and wounded 27 others on Wednesday near Lahore in eastern Pakistan, police said. Haider Ashraf, Lahore police chief, said evidence collected from the scene suggested it was a suicide attack. However, investigators and explosives experts were working to ascertain whether the bomb was planted near the checkpoint. Ashraf said he believes the police were targeted. Associated Press

North Korean envoy in Sweden amid planning for Trump-Kim meeting: North Korea’s foreign minister flew to Sweden on Thursday amid speculation that the country could be used as a venue for discussing details of planned talks, or the site of the talks themselves, between President Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un. The Swedish Foreign Ministry confirmed that North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong-ho would be visiting the country for talks on Thursday and Friday.

Sweden has long played an intermediary role between the U.S. and North Korea. Because the U.S. does not have an embassy in North Korea, Sweden is the so-called protecting power that provides consular services for Americans, including meeting with citizens who are imprisoned there.
New York Times


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

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