The Soufan Group Morning Brief


Friday, March 2, 2018

White House Reportedly Preparing for McMaster's Exit

The White House is preparing to replace H.R. McMaster as National Security Adviser as early as next month in a move orchestrated by Chief of Staff John Kelly and Defense Secretary James Mattis, according to people familiar with the discussions, NBC News reported. The move would be the latest in a long string of staff shake-ups at the White House over the past year and comes after months of strained relations between the president and McMaster.

A leading candidate to become President Donald Trump’s third National Security Adviser is reportedly Stephen Biegun, Vice president of International Governmental Affairs for the Ford Motor Company, according to the officials. He served on the National Security Council from 2001 to 2003 during George W. Bush’s administration. NBC News, ABC News

NSC Spokesman Michael Anton on Thursday called the NBC News report “fake news.” Principal Deputy Press Secretary at the White House Raj Shah, meanwhile, also cast doubt on reports of McMaster’s looming departure, telling reporters that the administration often dealt with “rumor and innuendo about senior administration officials.” Politico
Washington Post: Trump and McMaster Have Seemed Anxious to Part But So far Remain Together


Trump and the law on torture: “Does torture work? That’s debatable, although we have our doubts. Given the history of enhanced interrogation, however, two conclusions are ineluctable,” John J. Farmer, Jr. and Edward M. Neafsey write in Lawfare. “First, the resumption of its use would place our broader national security interests in jeopardy; and second, resumption could not be accomplished without manipulating the law.”

Why Congress must vote on the United States’ role in Yemen: “We believe that since Congress has not authorized military force for this conflict, the United States should play no role in it beyond providing desperately needed humanitarian aid,” Senators Mike Lee, Bernie Sanders and Chris Murphy write in the Washington Post. “That is why we are introducing a joint resolution that would force Congress to vote on the U.S. war in Yemen. If Congress does not authorize the war, our resolution would require U.S. involvement in Yemen to end.”

What the U.S. should do about Putin’s nuclear threats: “American policymakers shouldn’t overreact – particularly before more information is available to craft informed decisions,” Caroline Dorminey writes in Reuters. “Even with Russia’s new rocket, the United States retains control of one of the world’s largest stockpiles and most-advanced nuclear capabilities. Actually using the U.S. arsenal in combat would result in devastating destruction on a much larger scale than in World War Two due to technological advances since then.”

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President Donald Trump’s nominee to lead the National Security Agency and U.S. Cyber Command told Congress Thursday that Russia, China, and other countries do not fear retaliation for their cyberattacks on the United States. “They don't think much will happen to them,” Army Lt. General Paul Nakasone told the Senate Armed Services Committee during his confirmation hearing. “They don’t fear us.” Nakasone's comments came after his retiring predecessor, Admiral Mike Rogers, told the committee this week that Trump had not given him permission to disrupt Russia's election hacking operations. If confirmed, Nakasone said he would act “with speed” to develop a strategy for deterring Russia’s interference. Voice of America, ABC News

Special Counsel Robert Mueller is reportedly assembling a case for criminal charges against Russians who carried out the hacking and leaking of private information designed to hurt Democrats in the 2016 election. Sources say the possible new indictment would delve into the details of, and the people behind, the Russian intelligence operation that used hackers to penetrate computer networks and steal emails of the Democratic National Committee and Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta.  The Wall Street Journal reported last year that the Justice Department had identified six members of the Russian government allegedly involved in the hacking of Democratic officials. NBC News, The Hill

Counterintelligence officials are scrutinizing one of Ivanka Trump's international business deals, according to two sources familiar with the matter. The FBI has reportedly been looking into the negotiations and financing surrounding Trump International Hotel and Tower in Vancouver. The scrutiny could be a hurdle for the first daughter as she tries to obtain a full security clearance in her role as adviser to President Donald Trump. The FBI has been looking closely at the international business entanglements of both Ivanka Trump and her husband, Jared Kushner, to determine whether any of those deals could leave them vulnerable to pressure from foreign agents, according to a U.S. official.

DOJ report expected to criticize McCabe over media disclosures: A Justice Department review is expected to criticize former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe for authorizing the disclosure of information about a continuing investigation to journalists, according to people familiar with the inquiry. The department’s inspector general, Michael Horowitz, has zeroed in on disclosures to The Wall Street Journal as part of a wide-ranging investigation into the FBI and Justice Department’s handling of the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server while she was secretary of state. McCabe, under pressure from FBI Director Christopher Wray, stepped down as deputy director in late January amid concerns over the expected report. New York Times, Washington Post

Nuclear missile threat a ‘red line’ for Trump on North Korea: The Trump administration is reportedly considering military action against North Korea if the rogue regime successfully builds a nuclear missile capable of hitting the U.S. Senior national security officials believe a nuclear armed Pyongyang represents an unacceptable risk to the U.S. Beyond the missile threat, national security officials pushing for military action believe that if North Korea becomes a full nuclear power, it will proliferate and potentially share nuclear and missile technology with states including Iran, Pakistan, and Libya, as well as non-state actors. CNN

White House says Trump wants overhaul of FISA: White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said on Thursday that the process by which the government obtains secret surveillance warrants should be reformed, a conclusion that she said President Donald Trump had come to after revelations that individuals tied to his 2016 campaign were monitored by the intelligence community. Lawmakers on the House Intelligence Committee released dueling partisan memos in recent weeks about whether the intelligence community relied on a dossier of unverified information about Trump to obtain a surveillance warrant against former campaign advisor Carter Page. “Nothing makes the problems of FISA clearer than what was outlined in both the Republican and the Democrat memos,” Sanders said. Politico


Former al-Qaeda affiliate regains control in northwest Syria: Syrian jihadist rebels took back some ground on Thursday from rival insurgent groups near Syria’s border with Turkey after losing control of several towns in recent days, rebels and residents said. The rebel-held area in northwestern Syria has since last year been in the hands of Tahrir al-Sham, a jihadist alliance spearheaded by a former affiliate of al-Qaeda. Last month, two of its rivals joined forces in a new alliance of rebel groups affiliated with the Free Syrian Army. In the past ten days, they have pushed Tahrir al-Sham from several towns and villages. However, in fighting on Wednesday and Thursday, Tahrir al-Sham regained some territory and strengthened its position along the border with Turkey. Reuters

Syrian government forces advance in east Ghouta assault: Syrian government forces have gained ground from rebels at the edge of the eastern Ghouta region near Damascus, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said on Friday, in a ground assault that has continued despite a Russian plan for daily ceasefires. Hundreds of people have died in 12 days of bombing of eastern Ghouta, marking one of the fiercest onslaughts of Syria’s civil war. The U.S. State Department on Thursday called the Russian plan for daily ceasefires “a joke.” There has been no sign of aid deliveries to the area. Reuters

Egypt extends campaign against ISIS in the Sinai: Egypt’s military has discarded a deadline to stamp out armed groups in the Sinai Peninsula that have killed hundreds of civilians. Days before the Thursday target date set by President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to “stabilize” the Sinai, Egypt’s military chief of staff said the fight against ISIS-linked militants would take more time, citing the difficulty of rooting out militants from residential areas. The country’s military launched what it called a “comprehensive operation” in the Sinai on February 9. Wall Street Journal

AMISOM heads meet amid security concerns about Somalia: Officials from countries that contribute to AMISOM, the African Union force in Somalia, met this week in Uganda to discuss a transitional security plan for the country. While AMISOM has made gains in Somalia, its success is undermined by inadequate troop numbers and lack of predictable and sustainable funding to fight al-Shabaab and a small faction of ISIS fighters in the north. The five AMISOM countries - Uganda, Burundi, Ethiopia, Kenya, and Djibouti - are planning to start a drawdown of their troops in Somalia this year and withdraw all troops thm by the end of 2020. Meanwhile, on Friday al Shaabab killed five police officers in northeast Kenya. Voice of America, Reuters

NATO convoy escapes Kabul blast: A bomb aimed at a NATO military convoy killed one civilian and wounded four others Friday on a major highway outside the Afghan capital, police said, failed to damage its target. Afghan officials said the blast originated inside a vehicle, and that it damaged numerous buildings nearby. No group has claimed responsibility for the attack. Washington Post

Le Pen charged for tweeting photos of ISIS violence: French far-right leader Marine Le Pen was formally charged on Thursday for posting on Twitter gruesome images of purported atrocities by ISIS members, prosecutors said. The move came after the National Assembly voted in November to strip the National Front president of her parliamentary immunity over the three photos of ISIS violence she posted in 2015. Le Pen is facing charges of sharing “violent messages that incite terrorism or pornography or seriously harm human dignity.” If found guilty, Le Pen faces up to three years in prison and a fine of about $90,000. “I am being charged for having condemned the horrors of Daesh,” Le Pen told AFP. “In other countries, that would have earned me a medal.” France 24, Politico

Putin claims Russia developing nuclear arms capable of avoiding missile defenses: Russian President Vladimir Putin used a speech on Thursday to claim Russia is developing new nuclear weapons that he said could overcome any U.S. missile defenses.  In his speech, less than three weeks before the Russian presidential election, Putin claimed that Russia had successfully tested nuclear-propulsion engines that would allow nuclear-tipped cruise missiles and underwater drones to travel for virtually unlimited distances and evade traditional defenses. Washington Post

Former Deputy CIA Director Michael Morell said Putin’s speech was a reflection that the U.S. and Russia “are again in a Cold War.” CBS News

German government shores up defenses while facing cyber attack: Germany’s government was marshalling its defenses on Thursday against a powerful cyber attack that lawmakers said had breached the foreign ministry’s computer network and whose origins officials admitted were still unclear. The head of a parliamentary oversight panel said the attack was continuing and that security officials were trying to maintain control. Reuters

South Korea plans to send envoy to the North soon: South Korean President Moon Jae-in plans to send a special envoy to North Korea, following Pyongyang’s participation in the Winter Olympics last month. Seoul’s presidential office said Moon revealed the plans to U.S. President Donald Trump during a phone conversation late Thursday. North Korean officials who visited the South for the Winter Olympics said leader Kim Jong Un wants to hold a summit with Moon and that North Korea aims to open talk with the U.S. Associated Press


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

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

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