The Soufan Group Morning Brief


Thursday, April 26, 2018

Pentagon Report Details Missteps That Led to Ambush of U.S. Troops in Niger

Poor training, complacency, and a culture of excessive risk contributed to the deaths of four U.S. soldiers during an operation in Niger in October, according to a classified Pentagon report. The report, described by officials familiar with its contents, details a series of missteps and describes a disregard for military procedures and for the chain of command. Among other things, the report discloses that low-level commanders, determined to make a mark against local jihadis in the West African nation, took liberties to get operations approved through the chain of command. At least one officer copied and pasted orders from a different mission into the so-called concept of operations to gain approval, the officials said.

The report includes a series of directives from Secretary of Defense James Mattis that will apply broadly across the military to provide guidance on training, operational discipline, and reinforce protocols within the chain of command. The aim is to avoid a repeat of the missteps leading up to the Niger operation and reduce the chances that such incidents happen again, officials said. The officials who described the report said it would not recommend punishment for anyone. Ultimately, the Army and the Special Operations Command have the authority to pursue court-martial charges or other disciplinary proceedings against those involved. Wall Street Journal, NPR

Family members of the four fallen soldiers are being briefed this week on the report, which is approximately 6,000 pages long and includes interviews with key personnel involved in the mission. Congressional committees are planning to hold public hearings to question military officials about the operation. CNN


How reflexive hostility to Russia harms U.S. interests: “A more effective Russia policy is possible,” Emma Ashford writes in Foreign Affairs. “It would acknowledge the difficult realities of today’s U.S.-Russian relationship while focusing on both deterrence and re-engagement, as needed. Regrettably, it cannot be achieved so long as the United States’ reaction to Russian actions is reflexive hostility and confrontation.”

How Trump should define success in Syria: “There remains a path forward in Syria,” Jack Keane and Danielle Pletka write in The National Interest. “But it requires a serious strategy, determination to carry it out notwithstanding objections from guardians of the status quo, and a genuine desire to deal with both Iran and Russia in a way that will cause them to think twice about other such adventures.”

Cyber warfare may be less dangerous than we think: “Our research suggests that, although states like Russia will continue to engage in cyberattacks against the foundations of democracy (a serious threat indeed), states are less likely to engage in destructive ‘doomsday’ attacks against each other in cyberspace,” Benjamin Jensen and David Banks write in the Washington Post. “Using a series of war games and survey experiments, we found that cyber operations may in fact produce a moderating influence on international crises.”

Trump’s travel ban traps U.S. citizens: “The war in Yemen is testing one of President Trump’s stated principles. It’s no surprise that the U.S. is admitting hardly any refugees from that Arab state,” Steve Inskeep writes in the Wall Street Journal. “Yet on a reporting trip to Yemen and nearby countries, my colleagues and I discovered something startling: American citizens are among the Yemenis who have tried and failed to reach safety in the U.S.”

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Conservative members of the Supreme Court appeared to signal on Wednesday that they are inclined to uphold President Trump’s third travel ban. The latest travel ban, issued by a presidential proclamation, initially limited travel into the U.S. by individuals from Iran, Libya, Syria, Somalia, Yemen, and Chad. The White House announced earlier this month it was dropping Chad from the list.

Solicitor General Noel Francisco argued that the third version of the travel ban is materially different from the first two, which were rejected by lower courts. “It was imposed after a worldwide review,” he said, and was intended to identify high-risk countries with shortcomings in fighting terrorism or in providing background on visa applicants. Trump's call during the campaign for a Muslim ban was raised by several members of the court, but Francisco said campaign statements were not relevant, because they were made by Trump when he was a private citizen.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor suggested she was among the minority  prepared to find the president's action illegal. “Where does the president get this authority?” she asked. But Chief Justice John Roberts said presidents must have the power to block immigration when faced with intelligence suggesting an attack could come from a certain country.  CNN, The Hill, NBC News, New York Times

Rudolph W. Giuliani, President Trump’s new personal lawyer dealing with the ongoing probe into Russian interference in the 2016 election, met with Special Counsel Robert Mueller on Tuesday to reopen negotiations for a presidential interview, according to people familiar with the talks. Giuliani, who joined Trump’s legal team last week, conveyed the ongoing resistance of Trump and his advisers to an interview with federal investigators, but did not rule out the possibility, sources said, adding that Giuliani pressed Mueller for clarity on when the probe is expected to end. Mueller reportedly emphasized that an interview with the President is essential for investigators to understand Trump’s intent in making key decisions as they seek to wrap up the portion of the probe focused on potential obstruction of justice. Washington Post

The top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee is asking the Justice Department to provide former federal prosecutor John Durham’s investigative report into the destruction of CIA interrogation tapes ahead of CIA Director nominee Gina Haspel’s confirmation hearing next month. Senator Mark Warner (D-VA) sent a letter Tuesday to Attorney General Jeff Sessions requesting the report that Durham prepared when deciding not bring any charges in 2010 over the incident. Last week, the CIA declassified a report from former acting CIA Director Mike Morell that absolved Haspel of wrongdoing. “In light of the CIA's decision to release the internal investigation into the destruction of interrogation video tapes, I believe the Durham report would be helpful to understand Ms. Haspel's role,” Warner wrote.

The CIA offered a compromise in a Tuesday letter to other democratic members of the committee who have sought further declassification of Haspel-related records. A CIA official said the agency is “prepared to make classified background materials available in the Office of Senate Security for review by senators considering her nomination.” Senators. Ron Wyden (D-OR), Martin Heinrich (D-NM), and Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) called the CIA's response “wholly inadequate” given the seniority of the position Haspel is seeking. CNN, Politico, Reuters

A coalition of news organizations—including the Associated Press, CNN, Politico, The New York Times and The Washington Post—has filed a joint motion requesting a federal court unseal materials used by Special Counsel Robert Mueller to obtain search warrants in his investigation of President Trump’s former campaign chairman Paul Manafort and others indicted in the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. The news organizations are seeking to compel disclosure of affidavits, records of seizures, and the warrants themselves that Mueller filed in bringing indictments against such figures as Manafort and former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, among others.

They argue that the material, which has been shielded under a court order, could contain newsworthy information about the shape and direction of Mueller’s investigation, including details of criminal activity suspected by Mueller and the basis for FBI searches. The coalition of media organizations argues in its motion that the government’s desire to keep the material under seal to protect an ongoing investigation is superseded by the public’s interest in, and right of access to, the Mueller materials. Washington Post, Politico


Inspectors from the Organization of the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons made a second visit Wednesday to a Syrian town hit by an alleged chemical attack to collect samples from a new location that will be sent to designated labs for analysis. The suspected chemical attack in Douma on April 7 has sparked an ongoing dispute between the West and the governments of Syria and Russia.

Damascus and Moscow insist there was no chemical weapons attack. A Syrian filmmaker says Russian state media has used images from the set of his 2016 movie to claim that video footage from an April 7 suspected poison gas attack in Syria was staged. The filmmaker, Humam Husari, described it as a “desperate and cheap attempt by Russian TV to deny the obvious attack on Douma.” Damascus and Moscow have repeatedly blamed Syrian rebels and opposition activists for possessing and deploying chemical weapons. Associated Press
CBS News: Russia to Supply Syria ‘New Missile Defense Systems’
Associated Press: UN Warns of Surge in Attacks on Syrian Civilians

A Turkish court convicted 14 employees of Cumhuriyet, Turkey’s oldest independent newspaper, of terrorism-related crimes on Wednesday.The defendants were given prison sentences of up to eight years. They have been released from custody pending an appeal, and three other employees were acquitted. The journalists were arrested in the months following an attempted coup in 2016 that the Turkish authorities blame on Fethullah Gulen, a Turkish cleric living in exile in the U.S., and charged with aiding a terrorist organization. Lawyers for the Cumhuriyet staff members have called the accusations baseless and said they stemmed from the newspaper’s frequent opposition to the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.  Press advocates say the prosecution of the newspaper’s employees was part of a broader attack by Turkish authorities on the news media. CNN, Washington Post

Iran arrests British-Iranian academic: A British-Iranian academic was detained in Iran when the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps took him into custody on April 15 while he was in Tehran to visit his family and attend an academic workshop, the New York-based Center for Human Rights in Iran reported on Wednesday. Britain’s Foreign Office said it was urgently seeking information from Iran about the reported arrest of Abbas Edalat, who is a professor of computer science at Imperial College in London. Edalat is at least the third British-Iranian dual citizen to be incarcerated by Iranian authorities in recent years. New York Times, Reuters

Croatian police arrest suspect behind global cyber attack platform: A website blamed for launching more than four million cyber attacks around the world, including attempts to crash banks in the UK, has been taken down in a major international investigation. Croatian police said on Wednesday they had arrested a 19-year old man they suspect of being behind the website called A police statement said the site allowed users to pay for so-called distributed denial of service attacks, which shut down or slow down the speed of websites by flooding them with data. The targets included online services of banks, businesses, and public institutions across the globe. Reuters, BBC News


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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