The Soufan Group Morning Brief


Friday, March 16, 2018

Trump Said to Be Preparing to Remove McMaster as National Security Advisor

President Donald Trump has decided to remove H.R. McMaster as National Security Adviser and is actively discussing potential replacements, the Washington Post first reported on Thursday. The move may be delayed because there's no final decision on a replacement, sources told CNN. Possible replacements reportedly include former U.S. Ambassador to the UN John Bolton and NSC Chief of Staff Keith Kellogg. Washington Post

McMaster’s removal — following the removal of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson this week —  is reportedly part of a broader potential shake-up under consideration by Trump. On Thursday, Trump signaled that more personnel changes were likely. “There will always be change,” he told reporters. “And I think you want to see change. I want to also see different ideas.” Trump said earlier this week he was “very close” to having the cabinet he wanted. Reuters

In a tweet on Thursday night, White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders pushed back against reports that McMaster may be headed out the door, saying, “Just spoke to @POTUS and Gen. H.R. McMaster - contrary to reports they have a good working relationship and there are no changes at the NSC.” CNN

The president’s criticism of Attorney General Jeff Sessions has prompted speculation that he could be among the next targets, drawing pushback from the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday. Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA), who would oversee the process for confirming a new attorney general, said he “would not be comfortable” if Trump fired Sessions. Last July, faced with rumblings about the possibility of Mr. Sessions being fired, Mr. Grassley warned that the Senate would move to confirm any successor. Wall Street Journal


Telling the truth about CIA torture: “Haspel’s apparently positive view of torture was by no means universally shared within the CIA, even at the time. Again, I know from personal experience that many professionals within the agency courageously chose to stand up against the enhanced techniques,” Ali Soufan writes in The Atlantic. “And yet today, the candidate for the top job at the agency is someone who willingly participated in both the program and the attempted cover-up. We need to consider what kind of message this sends to people in the intelligence community and the wider government.”

I went to prison for disclosing the CIA’s torture. Gina Haspel helped cover it up: “Putting Haspel in charge of the CIA would undo attempts by the agency — and the nation — to repudiate torture,” John Kiriakou writes in the Washington Post. “But while I went to prison for disclosing the torture program, Haspel is about to get a promotion despite her connection to it. Trump’s move hurts morale among CIA officers who recognize that torture is wrong. It comforts people at the agency who still believe ‘enhanced interrogation’ is somehow acceptable.”

Remember Guantanamo? “Now that the Trump administration has raised the possibility that it may add to the ranks of detainees, Americans no longer have the luxury of forgetting about Guantánamo. We need to end this failed judicial experiment,” Aisha I. Saad and Zoe A.Y. Weinberg write in the New York Times. “No new cases should be brought to Guantánamo. Instead, they should be brought to federal courts, which already handle complex terrorism-related cases and allow for better civilian oversight and press access.”

The Salisbury attack was appalling. But we must avoid a drift to conflict: “As I said in parliament, the Russian authorities must be held to account on the basis of the evidence, and our response must be both decisive and proportionate … However, that does not mean we should resign ourselves to a ‘new cold war,’” leader of the UK’s Labour Party Jeremy Corbyn writes in The Guardian. “We agree with the government’s action in relation to Russian diplomats, but measures to tackle the oligarchs and their loot would have a far greater impact on Russia’s elite than limited tit-for-tat expulsions.”

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The Trump administration on Thursday blamed the Russian government for a campaign of cyber attacks stretching back at least two years that targeted the U.S. power grid, marking the first time the U.S. has publicly accused Moscow of hacking into American energy infrastructure

Beginning in March 2016, if not earlier, Russian government hackers sought to penetrate multiple U.S. critical infrastructure sectors, including energy, nuclear, commercial facilities, water, aviation, and manufacturing. The Department of Homeland Security and FBI said a “multi-stage intrusion campaign by Russian government cyber actors” had targeted the networks of small commercial facilities “where they staged malware, conducted spear phishing, and gained remote access into energy sector networks.” They did not name facilities or companies targeted. Reuters, New York Times

Also on Thursday, the Trump administration imposed sanctions on 19 Russian individuals and five entities, including Moscow’s intelligence services, for interference in the 2016 presidential election and other “malicious cyberattacks.” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin in a statement the administration “is confronting and countering malign Russian cyber activity, including their attempted interference in U.S. elections, destructive cyber-attacks, and intrusions targeting critical infrastructure.” CNN, New York Times, Washington Post

The sanctions came as the U.S. joined with Britain, France, and Germany in denouncing Russia for its apparent role in a nerve-gas attack on a former Russian spy and his daughter on British soil, calling it a “clear violation” of international law. BBC News
Reuters: U.S. Hints at Shift on Russia With Sanctions and Condemnation

The Special Counsel, Robert Mueller, has subpoenaed the Trump Organization in recent weeks to turn over documents, including some related to Russia, according to people briefed on the matter. The order is the first known instance of the special counsel demanding records directly related to President Trump’s businesses.

The breadth of the subpoena was not clear, nor was it clear why Mueller issued the subpoena rather than asking for the documents from the company. CNN reported in January that the company had voluntarily provided documents on a range of events, conversations, and meetings from Trump's real estate business to Mueller and congressional investigators. CNN

The subpoena is the latest indication that the investigation will continue for at least several more months. Mueller is reportedly broadening his inquiry to examine the role foreign money may have played in funding Trump’s political activities. In recent weeks, his investigators have questioned witnesses, including an adviser to the United Arab Emirates, about the flow of Emirati money into the U.S. New York Times, Reuters
Washington Post: Why Hasn’t Mueller Talked to Donald Trump Jr. Yet?

McCabe makes case against firing: Former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe on Thursday made a final case to the Justice Department about why he should not be fired just 72 hours before his retirement, leaving Attorney General Jeff Sessions to decide on the matter. McCabe did not meet with Sessions, who was traveling Thursday, but with other senior officials.

White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Thursday that the Trump administration believes McCabe is “by most accounts a bad actor” but stopped short of calling for his firing, telling reporters that decision should be made by Sessions. Washington Post, Politico

Four Senate Republicans seek special counsel to probe FBI’s use of Steele dossier: Four Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday called for the appointment of a second special counsel to aid the Department of Justice inspector general in probing the FBI’s use of the so-called Steele dossier in its surveillance of a former Trump campaign aide. In a letter to Attorney General Jeff Sessions and his deputy Rod Rosenstein, they wrote that “the Inspector General does not have the tools that a prosecutor would to gather all the facts, such as the ability to obtain testimony from essential witnesses who are not current DOJ employees.” Politico

Feinstein calls on CIA to declassify documents on Haspel’s ties to torture: Sen. Dianne Feinstein ­(D-CA), who wrote the Senate’s seminal report on the CIA’s use of enhanced interrogation techniques, wants the spy the agency to declassify documents detailing the role that Gina Haspel, President Trump’s nominee to take over as director, played in overseeing the practice and attempts to destroy evidence of torture. In a letter Thursday, Feinstein wrote that senators need “the complete picture” of Haspel’s involvement to “fully and fairly” review her fitness for the job. Washington Post

NSA nominee testifies in second confirmation hearing: President Trump’s nominee to lead the NSA told a Senate committee Thursday that the government should take stronger action to prevent Russian interference in future U.S. elections. “Unless the calculus changes, we should expect continued issues,” Army Lt. Gen. Paul Nakasone told the Senate Intelligence Committee at his confirmation hearing. Los Angeles Times, The Hill

Pentagon confirms hack attempt against DOD credit card holders: The Pentagon on Thursday confirmed a hacking attempt last weekend against an online financial services portal that Citigroup manages for Defense Department credit card holders. The confirmation comes a day after Citigroup told CNBC that a “malicious actor” attempted to gain access to information for Pentagon-linked credit card accounts. The bank told the Defense Department that the attack came from a computer system that was randomly guessing cardholder account usernames and passwords. CNBC


U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis on Thursday accused Iran of funneling money into Iraq to sway the outcome of its elections in May, calling it part of a broader pattern of destabilizing Iranian actions across the Middle East. Mattis said Iran was sending “not an insignificant amount of money” to Iraq to influence votes.  “That money is being used to sway candidates, to sway votes,” he said.

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi is running for a second term in the May elections. Among Abadi’s challengers are former Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and former Transportation Minister Hadi al-Amiri.

Mattis also sharply criticized what he called Iranian meddling elsewhere in the region. He said Tehran was providing ammunition and explosives to fighters in Syria and supporting rebels in Yemen. He said the strait between the Red Sea and the Arabian Sea, off the coast of southern Yemen, was being used as a “proving ground” for advanced Iranian weaponry. New York Times, Reuters

An American military helicopter crashed Thursday near the city of Qaim in western Iraq, killing some of the seven service members aboard, U.S. officials said. It was unclear why the aircraft, an HH-60 Pave Hawk, went down, the officials said. They did not rule out ground fire, and they could not confirm how many people had been killed. One official said the helicopter was not on a combat operation but was ferrying troops. Maj. Adrian J. Rankine-Galloway, a Pentagon spokesman, said Thursday that rescue personnel had been deployed and that the crash was under investigation. New York Times, Reuters

McMaster calls for strong response against Russia in Syria: National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster on Thursday called for further U.S. action against Russia as punishment for crimes in Syria in an address event marking the seventh year of the Syrian civil war. McMaster also forcefully condemned the Syrian government and its allies in Iran. “The Assad regime has killed indiscriminately, tortured, starved, raped and used chemical weapons on its own people.” He added, “all nations must respond more forcibly than simply issuing strong statements.” As many as 50,000 people have fled separate offensives against rebel forces in northern and southern Syria in recent days, according to activists. Voice of America, Politico, BBC News

UN urges warring parties in Yemen to facilitate aid: The UN Security Council on Thursday urged the warring parties in Yemen to ensure that humanitarian aid reaches all affected areas, citing UN estimates that over 22 million people need food, medicine and other aid. A statement approved by the 15 council members expressed “grave concern at the continued humanitarian impact of the conflict on civilians,” which has led to outbreaks of cholera and the threat of famine. Associated Press

In August, a petrochemical company with a plant in Saudi Arabia was hit by a cyber attack not designed to simply destroy data or shut down the plant, but rather to sabotage the firm’s operations and trigger an explosion. Investigators have been tight-lipped about the August attack. They still will not identify the company or the country where the is based and have not identified the culprits.

But the attackers were sophisticated and had plenty of time and resources, an indication that they were most likely supported by a government, according to more than a dozen people, including cybersecurity experts who have looked into the attack. The only thing that prevented an explosion was a mistake in the attackers’ computer code, the investigators said. New York Times

German prosecutors said on Thursday they had charged a 20-year-old Syrian asylum seeker with preparing a bomb attack in Germany aimed at killing at least 200 people. Authorities said the man, identified only as Yamen A., wanted to emulate attacks by ISIS. He was arrested in October. Authorities say he had procured chemicals used to make the explosive TATP and other bomb-making materials usually used to build a remote-controlled bomb. According to the German Interior Ministry, he arrived in Germany in September 2015 and applied for asylum in February 2016. He was granted a three-year residency permit in April 2016. Deutsche Welle, Reuters, Associated Press

Moscow will expel British diplomats in retaliation for London’s decision to expel 23 Russian diplomats, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Friday. Asked by a journalist at a press conference if Russia would kick out British diplomats, Lavrov said “of course, we will,” but did not did give further details. Russia’s Ambassador to the UK Alexander Yakovenko said the expulsions would amount to a 40 percent cut of Russian diplomatic staff in London. Moscow has faced growing international anger in the wake of the nerve agent poisoning of a former Russian double agent, Sergei Skripal, and his daughter in the UK. Washington Post

Saudi Arabia warns it will pursue nuclear weapons if Iran does: Saudi Arabia will develop nuclear weapons if Iran does the same, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi defense chief and heir to the throne, said Thursday. “Saudi Arabia does not want to acquire any nuclear bomb, but without a doubt if Iran developed a nuclear bomb, we will follow suit as soon as possible,” he said in an interview with CBS News. CNN, CBS News

North Korea nuclear reactor shows new signs of activity: New satellite imagery examined by Western experts suggests North Korea has begun preliminary testing of one of its nuclear reactors at the Yongbyon research facility. The disclosure comes as amid preparations for a summit between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in next month, and ahead of a possible meeting with President Donald Trump. It is unclear whether North Korea plans to use the reactor for electricity generation or to contribute to its weapons program. CNN

Sisi calls for big turnout in Egyptian election: Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi said on Thursday his government had fulfilled its promises during his first term and called on Egyptians to vote in large numbers in an election where he is seeking a second term in office. The former army chief is widely expected to win by a huge margin in the March 26-28 vote. 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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