The Soufan Group Morning Brief


Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Report Says FBI Did Not Fully Explore Whether it Could Hack Gunman's iPhone

The FBI did not exhaust possible solutions to unlock the iPhone of the San Bernardino gunman, Syed Rizwan Farook, before seeking a court order in February 2016 to compel Apple to help access the device, according to a Justice Department Inspector General’s report released Tuesday. The report pinned the lapse on a lack of effective coordination and communication between FBI units.

According to the report, an FBI unit that breaks into mobile devices only began seeking outside help to unlock the iPhone on the eve of the court filing demanding Apple’s assistance. At the time, an outside vendor had almost 90 percent completed a technical solution that would unlock the iPhone, the report said. However the Justice Department said it required Apple’s assistance because it lacked other means to access the device. Communication failures at the FBI caused some officials to misunderstand the status of its own efforts to open the device and contributed to delays in seeking help from the vendor that was ultimately successful, the report said.

The report grew out of a concern that the FBI’s then-Executive Assistant Director for Science and Technology, Amy Hess, raised several months after Farook’s phone was unlocked. Hess feared that one unit in her branch, the Remote Operations Unit, may have had techniques that could have opened the phone that another branch unit that was working on the case, the Cryptographic and Electronic Analysis Unit, did not know about.

The incident touched off a heated debate over whether the government could or should use a court order to compel a tech company to break the encryption it builds into its devices for customer security. The report comes as the White House, Justice Department, and FBI have renewed discussions within the government, industry, and academia about potential solutions to the national security and public safety challenges posed by encryption. Reuters, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times


A new dawn in Uzbekistan? “After spending decades as a pariah state, feared or at best ignored by even its near neighbors because of its reputation as one of the most repressive and closed nations in the world, Uzbekistan is slowly emerging from the shadows,” Ahmed Rashid writes in the New York Review of Books. “If Uzbekistan proves able to truly reform itself, then it could become a leader by example for other states in the region.”

Russia is trying to limits its casualties in Syria. Here’s why that is bad for Syrian civilians: “Today’s autocrats appear far less willing to send their forces into direct combat. This is enabled by new military technology that makes it easier to fire from afar,” Lionel Beehner writes in the Washington Post. “The autocrats waging the Syrian war have fought on the cheap, relying primarily on crude barrel bombs and indiscriminate shelling, air sorties flown above the reach of the opposition’s antiaircraft defenses, and low-risk siege-warfare tactics.”

The Middle East after the defeat of the Islamic State: “Even if the Islamic State isn’t revived—although it might be—the Middle East as a whole is likely to remain broken. The region will still suffer massive civil wars, jihadist terrorism, a lack of regime legitimacy, economic weakness, and constant meddling by neighboring powers,” Daniel Byman writes in Lawfare. “Moreover, the Islamic State’s defeat may make several problems worse, or at least more complex.”

Diplomatic expulsions won’t deter Russia: “While the international action against Russia will serve the UK well for now, it’s not a long term solution. New spies can be redeployed, and embassy staff replaced,” Yasmeen Serhan writes in The Atlantic. “To give its retaliation a substantive impact, the UK needs reprisals that exact a real cost.”

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Manafort escalates challenge to Mueller indictment: President Trump’s former campaign manager Paul Manafort on Tuesday asked a federal judge in Virginia to dismiss an indictment brought by Special Counsel Robert Mueller. Manafort said the case falls outside the scope of Mueller’s authority and is unrelated to Trump’s 2016 election campaign. Manafort faces charges including bank fraud and filing false tax returns in the case, which is scheduled to go to trial on July 10. The pretrial motion intensified a legal attack mounted by Manafort in a lawsuit in January in which he argued Mueller exceeded his authority and asked his appointment by the Justice Department to be voided. U.S. District Court Judge Amy Berman Jackson in the District of Columbia will hear arguments in the civil case at a hearing scheduled for April 4.

The motion to dismiss was similar to another filed this month in a federal court in Washington, D.C., where Manafort is facing a separate but related indictment also brought by Mueller. Associated Press, Reuters, Washington Post

FBI director doubles staff to respond to House subpoena: The FBI announced Tuesday that it is doubling the number of staffers combing through documents to comply with House Republicans’ requests for records of the investigation into Hillary Clinton's email server. Last week, Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-VA) subpoenaed the Justice Department for documents relating to the FBI's investigation into Hillary Clinton's use of a private email server, the FBI's monitoring Trump campaign aide Carter Page, and the internal recommendation by FBI's Office of Professional Responsibility to fire former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe.

“The actual number of documents responsive to this request is likely in the thousands. Regardless, I agree that the current pace of production is too slow,” FBI Director Christopher Wray said in a statement.

In a separate letter on Tuesday, a top Justice Department official accused Goodlatte of breaking from long standing norms in the relationship between the Justice Department and Congress. The letter said the subpoena for records surrounding McCabe's firing, which came less than a week after his ouster, occurred without any negotiations that typically precede a subpoena. CNN, Politico

Jury to hear closing arguments in Pulse shooter’s wife trial: Attorneys will offer jurors their closing arguments on Wednesday in the federal terrorism trial of Noor Salman, the widow of the Pulse nightclub shooter. Salman, 31, is charged with providing material support to a foreign terrorist organization and obstruction of justice for allegedly misleading law enforcement agents in their investigation of the massacre. Through the trial, Salman's attorneys have maintained her innocence and argued that she was a victim rather than an accomplice. Prosecutors claim that Salman was aware of her husband’s plans and helped him. CNN, Orlando Sentinel

FBI arrests suspect over suspicious packages sent to military facilities: The FBI said Tuesday it had arrested a Seattle-area man suspected of sending multiple suspicious packages to government facilities. Thanh Cong Phan, 43, was taken into custody Monday at his Everett, Washington, home, the FBI said. Authorities believe he sent packages containing potentially “destructive devices” to at least five government locations in Virginia and Washington, D.C. No one was injured by the packages. Politico, ABC News

Trump privately presses for military to pay for border wall: President Trump is privately pushing the U.S. military to fund construction of a wall on the border with Mexico. Trump had sought $25 billion in funding for the proposed wall, but a funding bill passed by Congress last week only appropriated $1.6 billion for border security. Trump reportedly suggested to Defense Secretary James Mattis and congressional leaders that the Pentagon could fund the wall, calling it a “national security” issue. Washington Post


Conference in Uzbekistan backs Afghan peace offer to the Taliban: Following talks in Uzbekistan on Tuesday, more than 20 countries and organizations expressed their support for direct talks between the Kabul government and the Taliban. A joint declaration issued following the meeting in Tashkent noted “strong backing for the National Unity Government’s offer to launch direct talks with the Taliban, without any preconditions.” The conference was attended by Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini, and officials from the U.S., China, Turkey, Russia, and others. Last month, Ghani offered to recognize of the Taliban as a legitimate political party as part of a proposed political process. He repeated the offer on Tuesday, saying it would “let ballots replace bullets.” RFE/RL, New York Times, Reuters

U.S. condemns failure of UN demand for ceasefire in Syria: UN Security Council members expressed frustrations and traded blame Tuesday over their unheeded demand for a 30-day ceasefire in Syria. In a unanimous vote on February 24, the Security Council called for a 30-day ceasefire “without delay” to enable humanitarian aid and medical evacuations in Syria. However, bombing in Syria has not stopped. “History will not be kind when it judges the effectiveness of this council in relieving the suffering of the Syrian people,” U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley said, calling it a “day of shame.”CNN, Washington Post

Syrian army preparing operation in eastern Ghouta: The Syrian army is preparing a “huge” operation against the last rebel-held town in eastern Ghouta unless an insurgent group, Jaish al-Islam, agrees to hand over the area, a pro-Syrian government newspaper reported on Wednesday. Rebels in other parts of eastern Ghouta are leaving in convoys to insurgent-held areas in the northwest under withdrawal deals with President Bashar al-Assad’s government, but Jaish al-Islam says it will stay in the town of Douma. Reuters

National security veterans urge Trump not to scrap Iran nuclear deal: A bipartisan group of more than 100 U.S. national security experts, including nearly 50 retired military officers and more than 30 former ambassadors, urged President Donald Trump in a joint statement to remain in the Iran nuclear deal. The group said the deal would “strengthen America's hand in dealing with North Korea, as well as Iran, and help maintain the reliability of America's word and influence as a world leader.” Trump has a May 12 deadline to decide whether to reimpose sanctions on Iran that were suspended as part of the nuclear deal.  CNN

Saudi prince meets UN head, announces $930 million for Yemen: Saudi Arabia and the UAE announced a $930 million contribution to UN humanitarian efforts in Yemen on Tuesday. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman presented the previously pledged donation to UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres. The contribution covers nearly a third of the total the UN is seeking for Yemen humanitarian aid this year. However, Guterres noted that “there is no humanitarian solution for humanitarian problems” and told Salman, “the solution is political, and we are entirely at your disposal to work together to find a political solution when that becomes possible.” Associated Press

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un visited China for an unofficial visit this week, Chinese state media confirmed Wednesday. The visit, believed to be Kim’s first trip abroad as leader since he came to power in 2011, came weeks ahead of planned summit meetings with American and South Korean leaders.

Kim held talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping and a handful of his deputies, including Li Keqiang, the Chinese premier, and Wang Qishan, the Chinese vice president. State media quoted Kim as saying that he is committed to the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. Kim made the trip to China at the invitation of Xi and was reportedly accompanied by his wife and senior advisers.

“The issue of denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula can be resolved, if South Korea and the United States respond to our efforts with goodwill, create an atmosphere of peace and stability while taking progressive and synchronous measures for the realization of peace,” Kim said. “I believe my first meeting with General Secretary Xi Jinping will yield abundant fruits of DPRK-China friendship, and facilitate peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula,” he added.
CNN, New York Times, Washington Post
Washington Post: Kim-Xi Meeting Presents a New Challenge for Trump on North Korea
Wall Street Journal: 10 Tips for Negotiating With Kim Jong Un

An ISIS supporter in London who attempted to build an army of child jihadists has been jailed for 25 years to life for a range of terrorism offenses. Umar Haque was convicted of attempting to groom children as young as 11 at the Ripple Road mosque in east London, where he showed them footage of beheadings and conducted terrorism role-play exercises. Haque also admitted to playing videos of ISIS propaganda to students at an Islamic school in east London, where he taught an Islamic studies class despite having no teaching qualifications and being employed only as an administrator. Police believe Haque attempted to radicalize at least 110 children at the mosque and the school. In addition, Haque was convicted of planning to use guns and a car packed with explosives to strike 30 high-profile targets including Big Ben, the Queen’s Guard, and Westfield shopping center in east London.
The Guardian, The Telegraph

Far-right referrals to UK's counter-terrorism scheme soar: The number of suspected far-right extremists referred to the British government’s counterterrorism program Prevent rose by more than 25 percent last year, official figures showed on Tuesday. Figures showed 968 suspected far-right extremists, including 272 under the age of 15, were referred to the program last year, an increase of 28 percent from the year before. Of those referred to the program, 332 were passed on to the voluntary deadicalization scheme known as Channel to receive support from specialist mentors. The Guardian, Reuters

UK to introduce new counterterror legislation: British Prime Minister Theresa May’s government will introduce new counterterrorism legislation to parliament in the coming weeks and months, Security Minister Ben Wallace said on Wednesday. “You will see them very soon, we have put together quite a strong package,” Wallace told the BBC. Home Secretary Amber Rudd said last year that counterterrorism laws need to be updated to keep pace with modern online behavior and to address the issue of online radicalization. Reuters

NATO expels Russian diplomats: NATO on Tuesday joined a wave of countries and groups expelling Russian diplomats over the nerve-agent attack on a former spy in Britain. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said the alliance would expel seven staffers from the Russian mission and deny the pending accreditation requests of three other workers at the Russian mission. More than 20 countries on Monday announced that they were expelling a total of more than 130 Russian diplomats. Australia, Belgium, Ireland, and Moldova also joined the list on Tuesday. Associated Press, BBC News

Italy conducts anti-terror raids: In the latest in a series of terrorism arrests this month, Italian anti-terrorism police said Wednesday they had arrested an Italian citizen of Moroccan origin on suspicion of supporting ISIS and were investigating his accomplices. A statement identified the man as Elmahdi Halili, 23, who was arrested in the northern city of Turin. Police said Halili had received a two-year suspended prison term in 2015 for “instigating terrorism” by running a website that praised ISIS and hailed some of its attacks in Europe. The police operation also targeted an undisclosed number of other people, both foreign and Italian. Reuters, The Local Italy


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

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