The Soufan Group Morning Brief


Monday, June 4, 2018

U.S. Weighs Expanding Military Role in Yemen War

The Trump administration is weighing an appeal from the United Arab Emirates for direct U.S. support to seize Yemen’s main port for humanitarian aid from Iranian-backed Houthi fighters, according to U.S. officials, a move they worry could have catastrophic effects on the country.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has asked for a quick assessment of the UAE’s plea for assistance such as surveillance drone flights to help a Saudi-led coalition retake Hodeidah, which currently serves as a vital lifeline for the country’s 29 million residents, U.S. officials said.

U.A.E. and Saudi Arabian officials have assured the U.S. that they won’t try to seize the Red Sea port until they get backing from Washington, American officials said. But there is growing concern in the Trump administration that fighting around the city could spiral out of control and force Washington’s hand. Yemeni fighters backed by the coalition are battling Houthis near the city. Wall Street Journal


I will speak out until integrity returns to the White House: “Presidents throughout the years have differed in their approaches to policy, based on political platforms, ideologies and individual beliefs. Mr. Trump, however, has shown highly abnormal behavior by lying routinely to the American people without compunction, intentionally fueling divisions in our country and actively working to degrade the imperfect but critical institutions that serve us,” said John Brennan in the Washington Post. “As someone who had the rare privilege of directly serving four presidents, I will continue to speak out loudly and critically until integrity, decency, wisdom — and maybe even some humility — return to the White House.”

President Trump thinks he is a king: “The president believes he is above the law. That’s the takeaway from the confidential 20-page memo sent by President Trump’s lawyers to the special counsel, Robert Mueller, published over the weekend by The New York Times,” said Harry Litman in the New York Times. “And it’s the same sentiment that Rudy Giuliani expressed on Sunday when he suggested that Mr. Trump has the power to pardon himself.”

How to defeat ISIS’s next play: “Having worked directly against each other, we know from opposite perspectives the danger, challenges and methods most effective in countering the threat posed by a virtual terrorist network,” write Mitchell Silber and Jesse Morton in the New York Post. “Social-media platforms enabled these groups to reach their target audience. Facebook, Google, Twitter and others must work more quickly to take down extremist content whose only purpose is to radicalize other users.
And U.S. authorities are not maximizing the use of former extremists besides the short-term role of extracting ‘intel’ on former associates, despite the fact that ‘formers’ with street cred have unique standing to dissuade aspiring jihadists from going down this dead-end road.”

Reality Winner has been in jail for a year. Her prosecution is unfair and unprecedented: “Imagine that you are facing trial but are forbidden from searching for evidence to prove you are innocent,” said Peter Maass in The Intercept. “It is a scenario from a totalitarian ‘Alice in Wonderland’ – you may do anything you want to defend yourself except the one thing that might actually help. That’s a rough approximation of the situation Winner’s lawyers have faced due to a strange twist in her case.”

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President Trump’s lawyers have for months quietly waged a campaign to keep the special counsel from trying to force him to answer questions in the investigation into whether he obstructed justice, asserting that he cannot be compelled to testify and arguing in a confidential letter that he could not possibly have committed obstruction because he has unfettered authority over all federal investigations.

In a brash assertion of presidential power, the 20-page letter — sent to the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, and obtained by The New York Times — contends that the president cannot illegally obstruct any aspect of the investigation into Russia’s election meddling because the Constitution empowers him to, “if he wished, terminate the inquiry, or even exercise his power to pardon.” New York Times

In a series of Sunday interviews, Rudy Giuliani, one of the president’s attorneys, said Trump likely has the authority both to pardon himself and to end federal investigations, but is unlikely to do either because it could lead to battles with Congress, including impeachment.“There’s nothing that limits the presidential power of pardon from a federal crime,” he said, adding: “The president of the United States pardoning himself would just be unthinkable and it would lead to probably an immediate impeachment.” Wall Street Journal, Washington Post
Washington Post: A President Can’t Obstruct Justice? That’s Not Quite Right, Experts Say.
Lawfare: The Trump Team’s Remarkable Letter to Mueller

Google, hoping to head off a rebellion by employees upset that the technology they were working on could be used for lethal purposes, will not renew a contract with the Pentagon for artificial intelligence work when a current deal expires next year.

Diane Greene, who is the head of the Google Cloud business that won a contract with the Pentagon’s Project Maven, said during a weekly meeting with employees on Friday that the company was backing away from its AI work with the military.

Google’s work with the Defense Department on the Maven program, which uses artificial intelligence to interpret video images and could be used to improve the targeting of drone strikes, roiled the internet giant’s work force. Many of the company’s top AI researchers, in particular, worried that the contract was the first step toward using the nascent technology in advanced weapons. New York Times, Wall Street Journal

American Special Operations forces are likely to be sharply cut in Africa as a result of a new Pentagon strategy that focuses on combating rising threats from Russia and China and, in turn, is driving a sweeping review of the nation’s elite commando missions.

The review, ordered by Defense Secretary Jim Mattis in recent weeks, could result in slashing counterterrorism forces in Africa by as much as half over the next three years. It was issued amid an ongoing Pentagon assessment of Special Operations forces worldwide after an ambush in Niger killed four American soldiers last fall. More than 7,300 Special Operations troops are working around the world, many of them conducting shadow wars against terrorists in Yemen, Libya, Somalia and other hot spots. New York Times

Signs of sophisticated cellphone spying found near White House: A federal study found signs that surveillance devices for intercepting cellphone calls and texts were operating near the White House and other sensitive locations in the Washington area last year. A Department of Homeland Security program discovered evidence of the surveillance devices, called IMSI catchers, as part of federal testing last year. The discovery bolsters years of independent research suggesting that foreign intelligence agencies use sophisticated interception technology to spy on officials working within the hub of federal power in the nation’s capital. CNN, Washington Post

U.S. military killed nearly 500 civilians in 2017: The Pentagon said U.S. military operations in six countries killed almost 500 civilians in 2017, in an annual report that was released to the public for the first time on Friday. The figures accounted for casualties in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Yemen. The Pentagon said it hadn’t received any credible reports of civilian casualties in the remaining two countries, Libya and Somalia. Wall Street Journal

Off-duty FBI agent drops gun while dancing, injures bystander: Denver’s district attorney this week is expected to decide whether the city will prosecute the agent, who was off-duty but armed early Saturday when his gun fell as he did a back flip while dancing in front of a crowd and accidentally shot a man in the lower leg. Denver Post

Pentagon to take over federal security checks: The Defense Department is poised to take over background investigations for the federal government, using increased automation and high-tech analysis to tighten controls and tackle an enormous backlog of workers waiting for security clearances.

Pentagon officials said that over the next three years, the Defense Department will take responsibility for all background investigations involving its military and civilian employees and contractors. But according to a U.S. official, the White House is expected to soon give the department authority to conduct security reviews for nearly all other government agencies as well. Associated Press


North Korea's top three military officials have been removed from their posts, a senior U.S. official said on Sunday, as U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un prepare to meet on June 12 in Singapore. All three appear to have been replaced by younger Kim loyalists, part of an ongoing transformation of the country's political and military establishment since the young leader took power in 2011.

South Korea’s Yonhap news agency, citing an unnamed intelligence official, reported that defense chief Pak Yong Sik had been replaced by No Kwang Chol, while Ri Myong Su, chief of the Korean People's Army (KPA) general staff, had been replaced by his deputy, Ri Yong Gil.

“All these (promoted) guys are top Kim Jong Un guys,” said Michael Madden, author of the North Korea Leadership Watch blog. “All three of them have held very sensitive and high level positions under Kim Jong Un, they’re very loyal (to him), and all have experience interacting with foreign delegations.” The three men replaced, Pak, Ri and Kim, are 68, 81 and 77 years old respectively. CNN, Reuters

Al Shabaab fighters seize central Somalia town: Somalia’s militant Islamist group al Shabaab has retaken a small town in the center of the country after it was abandoned by government troops. Reuters

Iraq sentences French woman to 20 years over ISIS membership: An Iraqi court on Sunday jailed a French woman for 20 years for belonging to the Islamic State group as her lawyers accused authorities in Paris of "interference" to prevent her returning to France. Melina Boughedir, a mother of four, was sentenced last February to seven months in prison for "illegal" entry into the country, and was set to be deported back to France. But another court ordered the re-trial of the 27-year-old French citizen under Iraq's anti-terror law. Middle East Eye


The UK’s Home Secretary Sajid Javid is set to reveal plans today for MI5 to declassify and share information on UK citizens suspected of having terrorist sympathies.

The security services currently hold information on around 20,000 such people, labelled “subjects of concern.” Under the change, intelligence around these people will be shared more across the government, local authorities and the police.

The changes come in response to five terror attacks in the UK last year - four linked to Islamic extremism and one far-right reprisal. Police and security services also claim to have foiled a further 12 terror plots since March 2017.

Other plans include the hiring of 1,900 new agents for MI5, MI6 and GCHQ to help keep more suspects under surveillance. There are also plans to improve the use of data by police and MI5, a new approach to managing the far-right threat, and increases to maximum sentences for terror-related offences. BBC News, Guardian, The Week UK

The White House is planning for a potential summit between President Trump and President Vladimir Putin of Russia, according to people familiar with the efforts, a meeting that would bring to the international stage one of the world’s most enigmatic political relationships.

A senior administration official said Friday that Jon Huntsman, the U.S. ambassador to Russia, has been in Washington to help arrange a meeting between Trump and Putin. The planning is still at an early stage, the official said, with the two nations needing to agree on a date and location. Wall Street Journal

Netanyahu heads to Europe to lobby for changes to Iran deal: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is heading to Europe in a bid to rally support from key allies for amending the international nuclear deal with Iran and for pushing Iranian forces out of neighboring Syria. Associated Press


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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