U.S. On Collision Course With Syria, Russia And Iran Once De-Facto ISIS Capital Falls

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF THE WASHINGTON POST)

U.S. on collision course with Syria and Iran once de facto Islamic State capital falls

June 21 at 7:42 PM
Trump administration officials, anticipating the defeat of the Islamic State in its de facto Syrian capital of Raqqa, are planning for what they see as the next stage of the war, a complex fight that will bring them into direct conflict with Syrian government and Iranian forces contesting control of a vast desert stretch in the eastern part of the country.To some extent, that clash has already begun. Unprecedented recent U.S. strikes against regime and Iranian-backed militia forces have been intended as warnings to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Tehran that they will not be allowed to confront or impede the Americans and their local proxy forces.

As regime and militia forces have begun advancing eastward, senior White House officials have been pushing the Pentagon to establish outposts in the desert region. The goal would be to prevent a Syrian or Iranian military presence that would interfere with the U.S. military’s ability to break the Islamic State’s hold on the Euphrates River valley south of Raqqa and into Iraq — a sparsely populated area where the militants could regroup and continue to plan terrorist operations against the West.

Officials said Syrian government claims on the area would also undermine progress toward a political settlement in the long-separate rebel war against Assad, intended to stabilize the country by limiting his control and eventually driving him from power.

The wisdom and need for such a strategy — effectively inserting the United States in Syria’s civil war, after years of trying to stay out of it, and risking direct confrontation with Iran and Russia, Assad’s other main backer — has been a subject of intense debate between the White House and the Pentagon.

Some in the Pentagon have resisted the move, amid concern about distractions from the campaign against the Islamic State and whether U.S. troops put in isolated positions in Syria, or those in proximity to Iranian-backed militias in Iraq, could be protected. European allies in the anti-Islamic State coalition have also questioned whether U.S.-trained Syrians, now being recruited and trained to serve as a southern ground-force vanguard, are sufficient in number or capability to succeed.

One White House official, among several who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss Syria planning, dismissed such concerns, saying: “If you’re worried that any incident anywhere could cause Iran to take advantage of vulnerable U.S. forces . . . if you don’t think America has real interests that are worth fighting for, then fine.”

The official said the expanded U.S. role would not require more troops, comparing it to “The Rat Patrol,” the 1960s television series about small, allied desert forces deployed against the Germans in northern Africa during World War II.

“With our ability with air power . . . you’re not talking about a lot of requirements to do that,” the official said. “. . . You don’t need a lot of forces to go out and actually have a presence.”

This official and others played down reports of tensions over Syria strategy. “No one disagrees about the strategy or the objectives,” said a second White House official. “The question is how best to operationalize it.”

The Pentagon, not the White House, made the decision to shoot down Iranian drones and a Syrian fighter jet in response to their approaches to or attacks against U.S. forces and their Syrian allies, this official said. “They shot down an enemy aircraft for the first time in more than a decade. That’s accepting a high level of risk,” the official said. “. . . We’ve done quite a lot since April that the previous administration said was impossible without the conflict spiraling.”

Ilan Goldenberg, a former senior Pentagon official now in charge of the Center for New American Security’s Middle East program, agreed that the Obama administration “over-agonized” about every decision in Syria.

But Goldenberg faulted the Trump administration with failing to articulate its strategy. “It has been the worst of all worlds,” he said. “A vagueness on strategy, but a willingness to deploy force. They are totally muddying the waters, and now you have significant risk of escalation.”

“I know the president is fond of secret plans,” Goldenberg said. “But this situation requires clarity about our objectives and what we will or won’t tolerate.”

Trump promised during his campaign to announce within his first month in office a new strategy for defeating the Islamic State. That strategy remains unrevealed, and for several months Trump appeared to be following Obama’s lead in avoiding Assad, Iran and Russia and continuing a punishing assault on Islamic State strongholds elsewhere in Syria, as well as in Iraq.

In April, Trump broke that mold with a cruise-missile attack on regime forces after their use of chemical weapons against civilians. Assad and his allies protested but did little else.

More recently, however, there have been direct clashes between the United States and the regime. Trump’s campaign calls to join forces with Russia against the Islamic State have largely disappeared amid increased estrangement between Washington and Moscow and investigations of Trump associate’s contacts with Russian officials.

Despite U.S. warnings, regime and militia forces have moved toward the Syrian town of At Tanf, near the Iraq border, where U.S. advisers are training Syrian proxies to head northeast toward Deir al-Zour, the region’s largest city, controlled by the regime and surrounded by the Islamic State. It is a prize that the regime also wants to claim.

At the end of May, Syrian and Iranian-backed forces pushed southward to the Iraq border, between At Tanf and Bukamal, where the Euphrates crosses into Iraq. In Iraq, Iranian-backed militias have, in small but concerning numbers, left the anti-Islamic State fight and headed closer to the border, near where regime forces were approaching.

On at least three occasions in May and June, U.S. forces have bombed Iranian-supported militia forces approaching the At Tanf garrison. Twice this month, they have shot down what they called “pro-regime” armed drones, including one on June 8 that fired on Syrian fighters and their American advisers.

On Sunday, two days before the most recent drone shoot-down near At Tanf, a U.S. F/A-18 shot down a Syrian air-force jet southwest of Raqqa.

In response, Russia said it would train its powerful antiaircraft defense system in western Syria on farther areas where U.S. aircraft are operating and shut down the communications line that the two militaries have used to avoid each other in the crowded Syrian airspace.

“The only actions we have taken against pro-regime forces in Syria . . . have been in self-defense,” Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said this week.

Dunford also made clear that victory against the Islamic State in Raqqa, and in Mosul, where the U.S.-led coalition and Iraqi forces are in the last stages of a months-long offensive, will not mark the end of the war.

“Raqqa is tactical. Mosul is tactical,” Dunford said. “We ought not to confuse success in Raqqa and Mosul as something that means it’s the end of the fight. I think we should all be braced for a long fight.”

In a report Wednesday, the Institute for the Study of War, referring to intelligence and expert sources, said that the Islamic State in Raqqa had already relocated “the majority of its leadership, media, chemical weapons, and external attack cells” south to the town of Mayadin in Deir al-Zour province.

Neither the U.S.-led coalition and its local allies nor what the institute called the “Russo-Iranian coalition” can “easily access this terrain — located deep along the Euphrates River Valley — with their current force posture,” it said.

At the White House, senior officials involved in Syria policy see what’s happening through a lens focused as much on Iran as on the Islamic State. The Iranian goal, said one, “seems to be focused on making that link-up with Iran-friendly forces on the other side of the border, to control lines of communication and try to block us from doing what our commanders and planners have judged all along is necessary to complete the ISIS campaign.” ISIS is another name for the Islamic State.

“If it impacts your political outcome, if it further enables Iran to solidify its position as the dominant force in Syria for the long haul,” the official said, “that threatens other things,” including “the defeat-ISIS strategy” and “the ability to get to political reconciliation efforts.”

“For us,” the official said, “that’s the biggest concern.”

Thomas Gibbons-Neff contributed to this report.

Syria Has Changed The World

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF THE SAUDI NEWS AGENCY ASHARQ AL-AWSAT AND THE NEW YOUR TIMES)

Syria Changed the World

Istanbul- The world seems awash in chaos and uncertainty, perhaps more so than at any point since the end of the Cold War.

Authoritarian-leaning leaders are on the rise, and liberal democracy itself seems under siege. The post-World War II order is fraying as fighting spills across borders and international institutions — built, at least in theory, to act as brakes on wanton slaughter — fail to provide solutions. Populist movements on both sides of the Atlantic are not just riding anti-establishment anger, but stoking fears of a religious “other,” this time Muslims.

These challenges have been crystallized, propelled and intensified by a conflagration once dismissed in the West as peripheral, to be filed, perhaps, under “Muslims killing Muslims”: the war in Syria.

Now in its seventh year, this war allowed to rage for so long, killing 400,000 Syrians and plunging millions more into misery, has sent shock waves around the world. Millions have fled to neighboring countries, some pushing on to Europe.

The notion that the postwar world would no longer let leaders indiscriminately kill their own citizens now seems in full retreat. The Syrian regime’s response to rebellion, continuing year after year, threatens to normalize levels of state brutality not seen in decades. All the while Bashar al-Assad invokes an excuse increasingly popular among the world’s governments since Sept. 11: He is “fighting terror.”

“Syria did not cause everything,” said the Syrian dissident Yassin al-Haj Saleh, a secular leftist who spent nearly two decades as a political prisoner under Mr. Assad’s father and predecessor, Hafez. “But yes, Syria changed the world.”

The United Nations Security Council is paralyzed. Aid agencies are overwhelmed. Even a United States missile strike on a Syrian military air base, ordered by President Trump in retaliation for a chemical attack on a rebel-held town, seems little more than a blip in the turmoil, the latest unilateral intervention in the war. Two weeks later, the Syrian regime, backed by Russia, continues its scorched-earth bombings.

There remains no consensus on what should have been or could still be done for Syria, or whether a more, or less, muscular international approach would have brought better results.

The Obama White House kept Syria at arm’s length, determined, understandably, to avoid the mistakes of the invasion and occupation of Iraq. And Western leaders surmised that unlike the 1990s civil war in Bosnia, the Syrian conflict could burn in isolation from their countries.

Moral or not, that calculation was incorrect. The crisis has crossed Europe’s doorstep and is roiling its politics.

The conflict began in 2011, with political protests. Syrian security forces cracked down, and with Western support stronger in rhetoric than reality, some of Assad’s opponents took up arms. The regime responded with mass detentions, torture, starvation sieges and bombing of rebel-held areas. Extremist jihadists arose, with ISIS eventually declaring a caliphate and fomenting violence in Europe.

More than five million Syrians have fled their country. Hundreds of thousands joined a refugee trail across the Mediterranean Sea to Europe.

Images of crowds of desperate refugees — and of the extreme violence they had faced at home — were used by politicians to fuel fears of Islam, and of Muslims. That lifted far-right European parties already riding on resentment of immigrants, from Finland to Hungary.

The refugee crisis has posed one of the biggest challenges in memory to the cohesion of the European Union and some of its core values: freedom of movement, common borders, pluralism. It heightened anxieties over identity and culture, feeding off economic insecurity and mistrust of governing elites that grew over decades with globalization and financial crises.

Suddenly European countries were erecting fences and internment camps to stop migrants. While Germany welcomed refugees, other countries resisted sharing the burden. The far right spoke of protecting white, Christian Europe. Even the Brexit campaign played, in part, on fears of the refugees.

In the United States, as in Europe, right-wing extremists are among those embracing authoritarian, indiscriminately violent responses to perceived “Islamist” threats. White nationalists like Richard Spencer and David Duke, the former Ku Klux Klan leader, post adoring pictures on social media of Assad, who portrays himself as a bulwark against extremism.

In my decade of covering violence against civilians in the Middle East, mass murder by states has often seemed less gripping to Western audiences than far smaller numbers of theatrically staged killings — horrific as they are — by ISIS and its Qaeda predecessors.

The United States’ own “war on terror” played a part in making violations of humanitarian and legal norms routine: detentions at Guantánamo Bay, the torture at Abu Ghraib and the continuing drone and air wars with mounting civilian tolls in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and elsewhere.

Then, too, Syria’s war broke out when the global stage was set for division and ineffectiveness. Russia was eager for a bigger role, the United States was retreating, Europe was consumed with internal problems. Russia and the United States saw opposite interests in Syria, deadlocking the Security Council.

The New York Times

Is President Trump Getting Ready To Dump Alt-Right Strategist Steve Bannon

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF CNN)

(CNN) It’s easy to forget, after a whirlwind 82 days in the White House, that chief strategist Steve Bannon only formally joined Donald Trump’s presidential campaign fewer than three months before Election Day.

For Trump, however, the timeline is crystal clear. He is keenly aware of when Bannon joined the team and, more to the point, how far he’d gone without him.
“I like Steve,” the President told the New York Post on Tuesday, “but you have to remember he was not involved in my campaign until very late.”
Trump in the same breath went on to list his pre-Bannon accomplishments and remind the world, “I’m my own strategist,” making clear what many had suspected — that the former Breitbart executive is on the presidential chopping block. Bannon picked the wrong rival in Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner, also a top adviser, and it’s become expressly clear that if the two can’t, as Trump said, “work this out,” Bannon will be the one who pays.
The prospect of Bannon’s dismissal will bring unalloyed joy to Democrats and the anti-Trump resistance, who view him as an right-wing extremist with a direct line to the Oval Office, and no small measure of relief to moderate Republicans turned off by his ideological aversion to most forms of American engagement overseas.
All of which begs the question: What becomes of Trump and his administration if the Bannon gets the boot?
The emerging wisdom is that Bannon’s departure would set off a centrist drift, with aides like daughter Ivanka Trump, Kushner and former Goldman Sachs No. 2 Gary Cohn, Trump’s top economic adviser, leading the way. Firebrands like Stephen Miller, one author of the initial travel ban, would be sidelined or dismissed.
By this logic, Trump, too, would moderate. Tweets aside, he might be more inclined to engage the establishment, whether that means seeking some kind of bipartisan consensus on trade or getting in the trenches with House Speaker Paul Ryan and fighting for more familiar GOP policies.
It would be, in short, the “pivot” that so many conservatives in Washington have clamored for and hopefully anticipated since it became clear Trump would be the GOP nominee.

Source: No one is leaving the White House

 Source: No one is leaving the White House

There is a concern, however, among some Trump allies that firing Bannon — who helped amplify Trump’s outside-the-beltway base with his particular brand of economic populism and pledges to “deconstruct the administrative state” — could backfire.
One senior White House official told CNN’s Jim Acosta some are worried Bannon will turn Breitbart against Trump if he leaves the White House.
But those worries seem to crumble when you consider the brief history lesson imparted by Trump during his chat with the Post.
“I had already beaten all the senators and all the governors, and I didn’t know Steve,” Trump said, referencing a primary he successfully navigated while Bannon was at Breitbart. “I’m my own strategist, and it wasn’t like I was going to change strategies because I was facing crooked Hillary.”
Trump is correct here. The “psychic connection to the issue palette” that drove his base was firmly in place ahead of Bannon’s arrival. Breitbart played a part, of course, in boosting Trump, but it was not the author of his worldview. That, for anyone who hasn’t followed Trump since the New York City tabloids were fat and literally dripping with classifieds, predates this past political cycle by a decades.
While the Breitbart website could potentially turn on Trump, a scenario that supposes Bannon is unceremoniously dumped and doesn’t leave declaring victory, it would hardly unmoor the zealous core of support that has stood by Trump through countless political tsunamis.
The more likely outcome if Bannon goes is that he returns to Breitbart and continues to expand on its emerging media empire. And you don’t do that by going to war with the most popular politician in its pages.
Would the alt-right be unhappy? To the extent they are a coherent movement with shared interests beyond trolling women and minorities, sure. But they would get over it, and faster than one might expect. Trump is their meal ticket, too.
As for the actual voters, well, they might not even notice. Bannon is, after all, a staffer — one that Trump, CNN’s Sara Murray reports, believes was getting a little too much attention.
Despite his outsize outsider persona, Bannon’s profile is more prominent in Washington than in the blue-collar districts Trump feasted on during the election.
He does not represent the “silent majority” that turned the 2016 election — a cohort that, as much as anything else, was joined by its uniform disdain for the political and cultural establishment.
Trump does.

President Trump ‘quietly’ Signs Law To Prevent Federal Money Going To ‘Abortion’ Clinics

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF CNN)

Washington (CNN) President Donald Trump privately signed a bill on Thursday that allows states to withhold federal money from organizations that provide abortion services, including Planned Parenthood, a group frequently targeted by Republicans.

The bill, which the usually camera-friendly President signed without any media present, reverses an Obama-era regulation that prohibited states from withholding money from facilities that perform abortions, arguing that many of these facilities also provide other family planning and medical services.
The bulk of federal money Planned Parenthood receives, though, goes toward preventive health care, birth control, pregnancy tests and other women’s health services. Federal law prohibits taxpayer dollars from funding abortions and Planned Parenthood says 3% of the services it provides are abortions.
The signing comes weeks after Vice President Mike Pence, a social conservative who regularly touts his anti-abortion stances, cast the tie-breaking vote in the Senate after two Republicans opposed the measure.
“(Women’s) worst fears are now coming true. We are facing the worst political attack on women’s health in a generation as lawmakers have spent the past three months trading away women’s health and rights at every turn,” Dawn Laguens, executive vice president of Planned Parenthood, said in a statement.

Ivanka Trump’s influence

The law once again raises questions about the power Ivanka Trump, the President’s daughter and aide, actually wields inside the West Wing. The first daughter met with president of Planned Parenthood shortly after her father was inaugurated in an attempt to better understand the group that is regularly targeted by Republicans. She has also cultivated an image of a moderating force inside the White House.
The President has even said Ivanka Trump would be his guide on women’s health issues.
“Ivanka is so much into that whole issue of women’s health and women,” Trump said in a 2015 interview with Fox News. “And she’s my guide on that whole subject.”

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 What is being done to save Obamacare?

But the first daughter has been hesitant about publicly speaking about her views on abortion, despite saying she would be an advocate for women’s health inside the White House.
“I don’t talk about my politics,” she told Boston Public Radio in 2016. “I don’t feel like it’s my role … I’m the daughter. I don’t think my politics are relevant to the discussion.”
What is clear is that the meeting with Planned Parenthood — and whatever information Trump took away from it — did not sway her father’s administration, which has since targeted the organization. The Republican health care bill, which was fully backed by the White House, would have defunded Planned Parenthood.
Democratic organizations blasted the bill on Thursday.
“Stripping millions of Americans of the critical health care services that Planned Parenthood provides doesn’t just hurt women — it hurts entire families and their economic security,” said Stephanie Schriock, the head of EMILY’s List, a Democratic political action committee. “This is just one more example of Donald Trump’s White House and this Republican Congress taking every single opportunity to chip away at women’s rights, and we won’t stand for it.”
House Speaker Paul Ryan called the signing a “a major pro-life victory.”

The Emerging Trump Doctrine: Don’t Follow Doctrine

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF THE NEW YORK TIMES)

Photo

The damage on Friday after a reported airstrike by the Syrian government in the rebel-held town of Douma, on the outskirts of Damascus. CreditAbd Doumany/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

WASHINGTON — As he confronted a series of international challenges from the Middle East to Asia last week, President Trump made certain that nothing was certain about his foreign policy. To the extent that a Trump Doctrine is emerging, it seems to be this: don’t get roped in by doctrine.

In a week in which he hosted foreign heads of state and launched a cruise missile strike against Syria’s government, Mr. Trump dispensed with his own dogma and forced other world leaders to re-examine their assumptions about how the United States will lead in this new era. He demonstrated a highly improvisational and situational approach that could inject a risky unpredictability into relations with potential antagonists, but also opened the door to a more traditional American engagement with the world that eases allies’ fears.

As a private citizen and candidate, Mr. Trump spent years arguing that Syria’s civil war was not America’s problem, that Russia should be a friend, and that China was an “enemy” whose leaders should not be invited to dinner. As president, Mr. Trump, in the space of just days, involved America more directly in the Syrian morass than ever before, opened a new acrimonious rift with Russia, and invited China’s leader for a largely convivial, let’s-get-along dinner at his Florida estate.

In the process, Mr. Trump upended domestic politics as well. He rejected the nationalist wing of his own White House, led by Stephen K. Bannon, his chief strategist, who opposes entanglement in Middle East conflicts beyond fighting terrorism and favors punitive trade measures against Beijing. And Mr. Trump, by launching the strike on Russia’s ally Syria, undercut critics who have portrayed him as a Manchurian candidate doing the bidding of President Vladimir V. Putin after the Kremlin intervened in last year’s election on his behalf.

Continue reading the main story

Given his unpredictability, none of this means that Mr. Trump has pivoted permanently in any of these areas. The White House has prepared an executive order that the president may sign in coming days targeting countries like China that dump steel in the American market. And Mr. Trump is sending Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson on Tuesday to Moscow, where he will have the additional task of trying to smooth over the rancor of recent days, in addition to exploring whether Russia could be a real partner in battling the Islamic State in Syria.

Moreover, the missile strike, in response to a chemical weapons attack, was intended to be a limited, one-time operation, and the president seemed determined to quickly move on. After announcing the attack Thursday evening, he made no mention of it Friday during public appearances, nor on Saturday during his weekly address. As of Saturday morning, the Twitter-obssessed president had not even taunted President Bashar al-Assad of Syria online, although he did thank the American troops who carried out the missile strike.

“Our decisions,” Mr. Trump said in the Saturday address, “will be guided by our values and our goals — and we will reject the path of inflexible ideology that too often leads to unintended consequences.”

That concept, flexibility, seems key to understanding Mr. Trump. He hates to be boxed in, as he mused in the Rose Garden last week while contemplating the first new military operation of his presidency with geopolitical consequences.

“I like to think of myself as a very flexible person,” he told reporters. “I don’t have to have one specific way.” He made clear he cherished unpredictability. “I don’t like to say where I’m going and what I’m doing,” he said.

That flexibility was a hallmark of his rise in real estate, and if critics preferred the word erratic, it did not bother Mr. Trump — it has since worked well enough to vault him to the White House. But now that he is commander in chief of the world’s most powerful nation, leaders around the world are trying to detect a method to the man.

“There is no emerging doctrine for Trump foreign policy in a classical sense,” said Kathleen H. Hicks, a former Pentagon official who is now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “There are, however, clear emerging characteristics consistent with the attributes of the man himself: unpredictable, instinctual and undisciplined.”

On Syria, Mr. Trump had mocked President Barack Obama for setting a “red line” against the use of chemical weapons and urged him not to launch a punitive strike against Syria after Mr. Assad crossed it in 2013. That attack, with a death toll of 1,400, dwarfed last week’s toll of 84. And just days before last week’s attack, Mr. Tillerson indicated that Washington would accept Mr. Assad’s remaining in power.

Photo

An injured child being treated after the strike. CreditAbd Doumany/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Indeed, critics, including Senator Marco Rubio, Republican of Florida, argued that Mr. Assad felt free to launch a chemical attack precisely because Mr. Trump’s administration had given him a green light. Russia, critics added, did not constrain Mr. Assad because it has had a blank check from an overly friendly Trump administration. And Mr. Trump’s efforts to bar Syrian refugees from the United States, they said, sent a signal that he did not care about them.

“President Trump seems not to have thought through any of this, or have any kind of broader strategy, but rather to have launched a military strike based on a sudden, emotional decision,” Senator Christopher S. Murphy, Democrat of Connecticut, wrote in an article for The Huffington Post on Saturday.

Mr. Assad is not the only leader testing Mr. Trump. North Korea has test-launched missile after missile in recent weeks, almost as if trying to get Mr. Trump’s attention. So far, he has been measured in his response, urging President Xi Jinping of China during his visit at Mr. Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida to do more to rein in North Korea. But national security aides have also prepared options for Mr. Trump if China does not take a more assertive stance, including reintroducing nuclear weapons in South Korea.

Mr. Trump’s action in Syria was welcomed by many traditional American allies who had fretted over Mr. Obama’s reluctance to take a greater leadership role in the Middle East, and feared that Mr. Trump would withdraw even more. After the missile strike, Israeli news outlets were filled with headlines like “The Americans Are Back,” and European leaders expressed relief both that he took action and that he did not go too far.

“We have learned that Trump is not so isolationist as many Europeans feared he would be — he appears to care about victims of a gas attack in Syria,” said Charles Grant, director of the Center for European Reform in London. “We have learned that he understands that U.S. influence had suffered from the perception — which grew under Obama — that it was a power weakened by its reluctance to use force.”

That touches on another animating factor as Mr. Trump deals with foreign challenges — doing the opposite of whatever Mr. Obama did. Mr. Trump’s first instinct after the Syrian chemical attack was to blame Mr. Obama for not enforcing his red line, never mind that Mr. Trump had urged him not to at the time. Even as he announced the missile strike on Thursday night, Mr. Trump asserted that his predecessor’s handling of Syria had “failed very dramatically.”

Intentionally or not, though, Mr. Trump adopted language similar to that used by Mr. Obama and many other presidents in defining American priorities. While in the past Mr. Trump said the United States did not have a national interest in Syria, last week he said instability there was “threatening the United States and its allies.”

He also said that “America stands for justice,” effectively espousing a responsibility to act in cases of human rights abuses, as other presidents have at times.

Until now, Mr. Trump has largely eschewed such language. Just three days earlier, he had hosted Egypt’s authoritarian president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, and made no public mention of the thousands of people the Cairo government has imprisoned in a political crackdown.

“What is striking to me is a subtle yet clear shift away from the rhetoric of pure American self-interest narrowly defined, as espoused by candidate Donald Trump,” said Robert Danin, a former Middle East negotiator who is now at the Council on Foreign Relations. “What has emerged is a new language of American leadership in the world that we have not heard before from President Trump.”

Mr. Grant and others noted that the strike, coming as Mr. Trump shared a meal with Mr. Xi, could resonate in Asia as well, leaving North Korea to wonder whether the president might resort to force to stop its development of ballistic missiles.

But Ms. Hicks said Mr. Trump’s flexibility — or unpredictability — was itself “extremely risky.” If other countries cannot accurately predict what an American president will do, she said, they may act precipitously, citing the example of China’s extending its maritime claims in the South China Sea.

“Imagine if Donald Trump then took exception in ways they didn’t anticipate and major wars ensued,” she said. “Bright lines, derived from clear interests and enforced well, are generally best, and I don’t think Donald Trump likes to be constrained by bright lines.”

U.S. needs to stop Russian electoral interference, NSA’s top civilian leader says

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF THE WASHINGTON POST)

U.S. needs to stop Russian electoral interference, NSA’s top civilian leader says

March 25 at 6:48 PM
The U.S. government has not figured out how to deter the Russians from meddling in democratic processes, and stopping their interference in elections, both here and in Europe, is a pressing problem, the top civilian leader of the National Security Agency said.The NSA was among the intelligence agencies that concluded that Russian President Vladi­mir Putin ordered a cyber-enabled influence campaign in 2016 aimed at undermining confidence in the election, harming Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton and helping elect GOP nominee Donald Trump.“This is a challenge to the foundations of our democracy,” said NSA Deputy Director Richard Ledgett, 58, who is retiring at the end of April, in an interview at Fort Meade, Md., the agency’s headquarters. “It’s the sanctity of our process, of evaluating and looking at candidates, and having accurate information about the candidates. So the idea that another nation-state is [interfering with that] is a pretty big deal and something we need to figure out. How do we counter that? How do we identify that it’s happening — in real-time as opposed to after the fact? And what do we do as a nation to make it stop?”The lack of answers, he said, “as an American citizen . . . gives me a lot of heartburn.”

Ledgett, known as a straight-shooting, unflappable intelligence professional, began his NSA career in 1988 teaching cryptanalysis — how to crack codes — and rose to become the agency’s top civilian leader . The NSA, with 35,000 civilian and military employees, gathers intelligence on foreign targets overseas through wiretaps and increasingly by cyberhacking. Its other mission is to secure the government computers that handle classified information and other data critical to military and intelligence activities.

Asked whether the NSA had any inkling that the Kremlin was going to orchestrate the release of hacked Democratic National Committee emails last July, he demurred. “I actually don’t want to talk about that.”

At the same time, he said, what Moscow did was “no strategic surprise.” Rather, “what may have been a tactical surprise was that they would do it the way they did.”

Campaigns of propaganda and disinformation, dating back to the Soviet Union, have long been a staple of the Kremlin’s foreign policy. Now, however, it is making effective use of its hacking prowess to weaponize information and combine it with its influence operations, or what intelligence officials call “active measures.”

“In general, if you’re responding to nation-state actions like that, you have to find out what are the levers that will move the nation-state actors and are you able and willing to pull those levers?” said Ledgett when asked how the United States should respond.

The Obama administration slapped economic sanctions on two Russian spy agencies involved in hacking the DNC, three companies believed to have provided support for government cyber operations, and four Russian cyber officials. The administration also ordered 35 Russian operatives to leave the United States and shut down Russian-owned facilities on Maryland’s Eastern Shore and on Long Island believed to have been used for intelligence purposes.

Yet, intelligence officials including NSA Director Michael S. Rogers and FBI Director James B. Comey said on Monday that they believe Moscow will strike again — in 2020, if not in 2018.

So should the government mull other options, such as hacking Russian officials’ emails or financial records and releasing them in a bid to embarrass or show corruption? “I think every element of national power is something we should consider,” he said. “That would probably fall under something like a covert action. But if that’s the right answer, that’s the right answer.”

Ledgett is probably most well-known for leading the agency task force that handled the fallout from the leaks of classified information by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden in 2013. The disclosures prompted a national and global debate about the proper scope of government surveillance and led Congress to pass some reforms, including the outlawing of bulk collection of Americans’ phone metadata.

But the disclosures also caused great upheaval in NSA’s collection efforts, hurt morale, and damaged relations with allies and with tech firms that enable court-ordered surveillance, Ledgett said. “It was a terrible time for the agency,” he said.

He oversaw the probe of the internal breach; relations with Congress, the White House, foreign governments and the press; and the effort to prevent a recurrence. “There was a bit of a narrative on the outside about this evil agency that hoovered up all the communications in the world and rooted through them for things that were interesting, and that wasn’t actually true.”

The operational hit was significant, he said. More than 1,000 foreign targets — whether a person or a group or an organization — altered or attempted to alter their means of communications as a result of the disclosures, he said. They “tried with varying degrees of success to remove themselves from our ability to see what they were doing,” he said.

The agency, which has some 200 stations worldwide, reworked capabilities including virtually all of its hacking tools. “In some cases, we had to do things very differently” to gather the same foreign intelligence as before.

Raj De, a former NSA general counsel, said Ledgett was relied on heavily by both Rogers and Rogers’s predecessor, Keith B. Alexander. “He has really been a source of steadiness for the agency,” said De, now head of the Cybersecurity & Data Privacy practice at Mayer Brown, a global law firm. “What is particularly notable about Rick is his willingness to engage with all types of people, to keep an open mind.”

In December 2013, Alexander, when he was the NSA director, said that Snowden should be given no amnesty. But Ledgett told CBS’s “60 Minutes” then that “my personal view is yes, it’s worth having a conversation about.”

In his interview earlier this week, however, he said what he meant was that by engaging Snowden in conversation, the agency might have been able to learn what material had not been released and where it was.

Today, he said, there is no longer any need to talk to Snowden. “He’s past his usefulness to us.” Snowden, who is living in Moscow under a grant of asylum, has been charged with violating the Espionage Act, and Ledgett said he should not be pardoned. “I’ve always been of the idea that ‘Hey, I think he needs to face the music for what he did.’ ”

Julie Tate contributed to this report.

Schiff: ‘More Than Circumstantial Evidence’ Trump Associates Colluded With Russia

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF NBC NEWS)

MAR 22 2017, 10:20 PM ET

Schiff: ‘More Than Circumstantial Evidence’ Trump Associates Colluded With Russia

WASHINGTON — The top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee claimed Wednesday evening that he has seen “more than circumstantial evidence” that associates of President Donald Trump colluded with Russia while the Kremlin attempted to interfere with the 2016 presidential election.

Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., the Ranking Member on the committee, was asked by Chuck Todd on “Meet The Press Daily” whether or not he only has a circumstantial case.

“Actually no, Chuck,” he said. “I can tell you that the case is more than that and I can’t go into the particulars, but there is more than circumstantial evidence now.”

Play
House Intel Cmte. Creates Confusion As Chairman Releases Trump Details 1:59

Questioned whether or not he has seen direct evidence of collusion, Schiff responded, “I don’t want to get into specifics but I will say that there is evidence that is not circumstantial and is very much worthy of an investigation.”

That is a shift from Sunday’s “Meet the Press” interview, when Schiff only went as far as to say that there was circumstantial evidence of collusion and “direct evidence” of deception.

.@RepAdamSchiff on Trump/Russia connection: “There is more than circumstantial evidence now…and is very much worthy of investigation.”

The Trump campaign and the White House have repeatedly denied that Trump’s associates were at all connected to any activities related to Russia’s attempts to influence the last election.

Schiff’s comments came after Republican committee chair Devin Nunes said that he had seen reports from the U.S. intelligence community showing communication from members of the transition team — and possibly the president himself — were “incidentally collected” as part of a broader surveillance effort.

Nunes said it appeared most of the information was collected after the election and during the transition, it appears it was collected legally, and none of it was related to Russia or the investigation into Russia. He said he did not know who ordered the alleged surveillance.

The disclosure drew condemnation from some Democrats. Schiff bristled at the fact that Nunes did not share the information with him before updating reporters and the White House.

“The chairman will need to decide whether he is the chairman of an independent investigation into conduct, which includes allegations of potential coordination between the Trump campaign and the Russians, or he’s going to act as a surrogate of the White House. Because he cannot do both,” Schiff said.

Play
Full Interview: Schiff on His Confidence in House Intel Committee 8:40

Nunes said at a press conference that “the intelligence community incidentally collected information about American citizens involved in the Trump transition.”

“From what I know right now it looks like incidental collection, we don’t know exactly how that was picked up, but we’re are trying to get to the bottom of it,” Nunes said.

Trump said he felt somewhat vindicated by Nunes’ disclosure: “I somewhat do. I very much appreciated the fact that they found what they found,” the president said.

Nunes said he has not seen any evidence that former President Barack Obama had Trump’s “wires tapped” before the election — a claim Trump made on Twitter. The director of the FBI said Monday he has no evidence backing up the tweeted claim.

Senate Intelligence Committee Vice Chairman Mark Warner, D-Virginia, said he was “absolutely mystified by Chairman Nunes’ actions,” and the decision to brief Trump on the information “seems pretty inappropriate to me.”

Republican Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, told MSNBC’s Greta Van Susteren that the back-and-forth among the top members of the committee was “bizarre” and he said partisan fighting had cost Congress its credibility to investigate Russian interference the election.

“No longer does the Congress have credibility to handle this alone, and I don’t say that lightly,” McCain, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said.

Play
McCain: Select Committee On Russia Now A ‘Requirement’10:36

On Monday, FBI Director James Comey confirmed that an investigation into the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia had been ongoing since July. Comey said the probe was included in the agency’s investigation into what the U.S. intelligence community concluded was an attempt by Russia to interfere with the 2016 election with the purpose of helping Trump win.

The House and Senate Intelligence Committees are conducting their own investigations.

Two weeks ago on “Meet The Press,” James Clapper, the former Director of National Intelligence under President Obama, said that to his knowledge, there was no evidence of collusion between Moscow and Trump associates. Clapper oversaw the work of U.S. intelligence agencies through January 20th.

On Wednesday, Schiff told Todd of Clapper’s statements, “All I can tell you is reviewing the evidence that I have, I don’t think you can conclude that at all — far from it.”

Trump The Moron At It Again: Saying Obama Got The British Intelligence Agency To Spy On Him

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF TIME NEWS)

White House Seeks to Allay British Concerns Over Unfounded Wiretapping Claim

11:43 AM ET
White House officials tried to calm the concerns of British allies after White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer repeated an unfounded claim that the British spy service spied on President Trump. But the White House is stopping short of saying it offered an apology to its closest foreign ally.

“[British Ambassador to the U.S.] Kim Darroch and [National Security Advisor] Sir Mark Lyall expressed their concerns to Sean Spicer and General McMaster,” a White House official said Friday. “Mr. Spicer and General McMaster explained that Mr. Spicer was simply pointing to public reports, not endorsing any specific story.”

Several British outlets reported Friday that the White House apologized to the U.K. government, but the White House would not confirm those accounts.

The row began Thursday, as Spicer repeated the claim of Fox News personality Andrew Napolitano, who suggested that former President Obama had ordered GCHQ, the U.K.’s equivalent of the National Security Agency, to spy on his successor. For nearly two weeks the White House has been struggling to justify Trump’s assertion in a March 4 tweet that Obama had him “wire tapped.”

On Thursday, the top Republican and Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee jointly stated they’ve seen no evidence of any surveillance of Trump Tower. Even Trump allies in Congress are staying away from the claim, though Trump maintained Wednesday in an interview with Fox News that he would be vindicated by new information “very soon.” The White House has argued that Trump’s use of quotation marks around the phrase wires tapped implied he meant all manners of surveillance against him, but hasn’t offered any official proof of the claim, beyond reports in the press.

Reading a long list of media reports that mentioned alleged signals intelligence about Trump and his ties to Russia, Spicer quoted comments.

“Last, on Fox News on March 14th, Judge Andrew Napolitano made the following statement,” Spicer said during the daily White House briefing. “‘Three intelligence sources have informed Fox News that President Obama went outside the chain of command. He didn’t use the NSA, he didn’t use the CIA, he didn’t use the FBI, and he didn’t use the Department of Justice. He used GCHQ, what is that? It’s the initials for the British Intelligence Spying Agency. So simply, by having two people saying to them, “The President needs transcripts of conversations involved in candidate Trump’s conversations involving President-elect Trump,” he was able to get it and there’s no American fingerprints on this.'”

Within hours GCHQ responded in a rare statement calling the claim “utterly ridiculous.

“Recent allegations made by media commentator Judge Andrew Napolitano about GCHQ being asked to conduct ‘wire tapping’ against the then President Elect are nonsense,” a GCHQ spokesperson said. “They are utterly ridiculous and should be ignored.”

Asked by a reporter whether the subject of GCHQ’s alleged involvement had raised between the two governments and whether it would affect the so-called “special relationship” between the U.S. and the U.K., Spicer backtracked.

“No, no, it has not been raised,” Spicer said. “But I do think that, again, we’re not — all we’re doing is literally reading off what other stations and people have reported, and I think that casts into concern some of the activities that may have occurred during the ’16 election. We’re not casting judgment on that. I think the idea is to say that if these organizations, these individuals came to these conclusions, they merit looking into.”

The claim is all the more incendiary given the close intelligence-sharing relationship between the two countries. The U.S. and the U.K., along with Australia, Canada, and New Zealand, form the Five Eyes — a decades-old intelligence cooperative in which the countries share much of their signals intelligence and pledge not to spy on each another.

A spokesperson for British Prime Minister Theresa May told The Independent that the White House would not float the claims again. “We’ve made clear to the Administration that these claims are ridiculous and they should be ignored and we’ve received assurances they won’t be repeated.”

President Trump Seeking To Slash NOAA Budget By 17-22% Putting Many American Lives At Risk

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF THE WASHINGTON POST)

The Trump administration is seeking to slash the budget of one of the government’s premier climate science agencies by 17 percent, delivering steep cuts to research funding and satellite programs, according to a four-page budget memo obtained by The Washington Post.

The proposed cuts to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration would also eliminate funding for a variety of smaller programs, including external research, coastal management, estuary reserves and “coastal resilience,” which seeks to bolster the ability of coastal areas to withstand major storms and rising seas.

NOAA is part of the Commerce Department, which would be hit by an overall 18 percent budget reduction from its current funding level.

The Office of Management and Budget also asked the Commerce Department to provide information about how much it would cost to lay off employees, while saying those employees who do remain with the department should get a 1.9 percent pay increase in January 2018. It requested estimates for terminating leases and government “property disposal.”

The OMB outline for the Commerce Department for fiscal 2018 proposed sharp reductions in specific areas within NOAA such as spending on education, grants and research. NOAA’s Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research would lose $126 million, or 26 percent, of the funds it has under the current budget. Its satellite data division would lose $513 million, or 22 percent, of its current funding under the proposal.

The National Marine Fisheries Service and National Weather Service would be fortunate by comparison, facing only 5 percent cuts.

The figures are part of the OMB’s “passback” document, a key part of the annual budget process in which the White House instructs agencies to draw up detailed budgets for submission to Congress. The numbers often change during the course of negotiations between the agency and the White House and between lawmakers and the administration later on. The 2018 fiscal year starts Oct. 1.

A spokesperson for the Commerce Department declined to comment. A White House official who spoke on the condition of anonymity said that the process was “evolving” and cautioned against specific numbers. The official would not respond to questions about the four-page passback document.

The biggest single cut proposed by the passback document comes from NOAA’s satellite division, known as the National Environmental Satellite, Data and Information Service, which includes a key repository of climate and environmental information, the National Centers for Environmental Information. Researchers there were behind a study suggesting that there has been no recent slowdown in the rate of climate change — research that drew the ire of Republicans in Congress.

Another proposed cut would eliminate a $73 million program called Sea Grant, which supports coastal research conducted through 33 university programs across the country. That includes institutions in many swing states that went for President Trump, such as the University of Wisconsin at Madison, the University of Michigan, Ohio State University, the University of Florida and North Carolina State University.

The OMB passback said that the administration wanted to “prioritize rebuilding the military” and would seek “savings and efficiencies to keep the Nation on a responsible fiscal path.” It said that its proposed funding cut for the Commerce Department “highlights the tradeoffs and choices inherent in pursuing these goals.”

The OMB also said that the White House would come up with ideas to modernize “outdated infrastructure,” but it said that agencies should not expect increases in their fiscal 2018 discretionary-spending “toplines” as a result.

On Wednesday, after his confirmation, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said that drawing up a budget would be a top priority. “One of the first steps,” he said, “will be securing adequate appropriations from the Congress. In a period of budgetary constraint, that will be a major challenge.”

The OMB passback document said that the Commerce Department, like other agencies, should “buy and manage like a business.” It urged the department to explore greater use of privately owned commercial satellites and commercial cloud services while submitting to the OMB a plan to retire or replace “at least one high priority legacy IT system” beginning in 2018.

Many scientists warned that the deep cuts at NOAA could hurt safety as well as academic programs.

Conrad Lautenbacher, a retired vice admiral who was the NOAA administrator under President George W. Bush, said, “I think the cuts are ill timed given the needs of society, economy and the military.” He added, “It will be very hard for NOAA to manage and maintain the kind of services the country requires” with the proposed cuts.

Jane Lubchenco, NOAA administrator under President Barack Obama, said that 90 percent of the information for weather forecasts comes from satellites. “Cutting NOAA’s satellite budget will compromise NOAA’s mission of keeping Americans safe from extreme weather and providing forecasts that allow businesses and citizens to make smart plans,” she said.

Rick Spinrad, a former chief scientist for NOAA, said: “NOAA’s research and operations, including satellite data management, support critical safety needs. A reduced investment now would virtually guarantee jeopardizing the safety of the American public.”

Time-lapse images show Tropical Storm Matthew turning into a hurricane

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Play Video0:36
NOAA released a time lapse of satellite imagery from Sept. 27 to Sept. 30 that shows Tropical Storm Matthew moving into the Caribbean Sea, where it became a hurricane. (NOAA)

He said that weather warnings for tornadoes and hurricanes could be compromised and that navigational capacity used to help guide commercial ships and other mariners would suffer, leaving them without the “improved forecasts they need to safely maneuver coastal waters.” It could become harder to warn of tsunamis and forecast weather that will cause power outages.

David Titley, a professor of meteorology at Pennsylvania State University who served as NOAA’s chief operating officer in the Obama administration, said that “oddly” the White House budget office, despite the president’s commitment to building infrastructure, would cut NOAA’s budget for ships and satellites. “These cuts will impact good private-sector jobs in the U.S.,” Titley said. “The loss of capability will make America weaker both in space and on the sea — a strange place to be for an administration that campaigned to ‘make America great again.’ ”

Chris Mooney and Abby Phillip contributed to this report.

Trump Accuses Obama Of “Nixon/Watergate” Type “Bugging” Of Trump Tower Phones

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF THE WASHINGTON POST)

President Trump on Saturday angrily accused former president Barack Obama of orchestrating a “Nixon/Watergate” plot to tap the phones at his Trump Tower headquarters last fall in the run-up to the election.

Citing no evidence to support his explosive allegation, Trump said in a series of five tweets sent Saturday morning that Obama was “wire tapping” his New York offices before the election in a move he compared to McCarthyism. “Bad (or sick) guy!” he said of his predecessor, adding that the surveillance resulted in “nothing found.”

Trump offered no citations nor did he point to any credible news report to back up his accusation, but he may have been referring to commentary on Breitbart and conservative talk radio suggesting that Obama and his administration used “police state” tactics last fall to monitor the Trump team. The Breitbart story, published Friday, has been circulating among Trump’s senior staff, according to a White House official who described it as a useful catalogue of the Obama administration’s activities.

A spokesman for Obama did not immediately reply to a request for comment.

Trump has been feuding with the intelligence community since before he took office, convinced that career officers as well as holdovers from the Obama administration have been trying to sabotage his presidency. He has ordered internal inquiries to find who leaked sensitive information regarding communications during the campaign between Russian officials and his campaign associates and allies, including ousted national security adviser Michael Flynn and Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

What is next for Trump and the intelligence community?

Washington Post reporter Adam Entous breaks down Friday’s intelligence report on Russian involvement in the 2016 election. (Dalton Bennett/The Washington Post)

Some current and former intelligence officials cast doubt on Trump’s assertion.

“It’s highly unlikely there was a wiretap on the president-elect,” said one former senior intelligence official familiar with surveillance law who spoke candidly on the condition of anonymity. “It seems unthinkable. If that were the case by some chance, that means that a federal judge would have found that there was either probable cause that he had committed a crime or was an agent of a foreign power.”

A wiretap cannot be directed at a U.S. facility, the official said, without finding probable cause that the phone lines or Internet addresses were being used by agents of a foreign power — or by someone spying for or acting on behalf of a foreign government. “You can’t just go around and tap buildings,” the official said.

Trump sent the tweets from Palm Beach, Fla., where he is vacationing this weekend at his private Mar-a-Lago estate. It has long been his practice to stir up new controversies to deflect attention from a damaging news cycle, such as the one in recent days about Sessions and Russia.

Trump’s tweets took numerous top White House aides by surprise, according to a second White House official who was not authorized to speak publicly. There was an expectation that Saturday would be a “down day, pretty quiet,” this official said, and there was little if any attempt to coordinate the president’s message on the wire-tapping allegations.

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