Today's Headlines and Commentary

Jordan Brunner
Tuesday, January 24, 2017, 1:47 PM

The New York Times writes that President Trump has requested that FBI Director James Comey stay on in his position as chief law enforcement officer. Firing Comey, while floated by Trump’s team and within the President’s power, would have breached a significant norm against political retaliation in response to the FBI Director’s actions.

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The New York Times writes that President Trump has requested that FBI Director James Comey stay on in his position as chief law enforcement officer. Firing Comey, while floated by Trump’s team and within the President’s power, would have breached a significant norm against political retaliation in response to the FBI Director’s actions. Trump’s decision will avoid what would likely be a lengthy confirmation battle for Comey’s successor and will likely soothe fears of presidential overreach within the Bureau and elsewhere, given the FBI’s central role in a series of controversies surrounding the presidential election.

The Washington Post reports that the FBI reviewed National Security Advisor Michael T. Flynn’s phone calls with the Russian ambassador to the United States, but found nothing incriminating. Both men most likely knew their calls were being monitored, and therefore probably would not have used those calls for illegal coordination according to officials familiar with the matter. Notably, the Post report appears to contradict recent CNN reporting that Flynn remains under ongoing investigation.

Former Representative Mike Pompeo is now the director of the CIA after being confirmed by the Senate with a vote of 66-32, largely along party lines, CNN tells us. Pompeo’s confirmation had been unpalatable to a few senators, including Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR), who ABC reports said Pompeo was “the wrong man for the job,” and forced the delay of the vote. Foreign Policy examines the situation Pompeo now faces as he takes over an agency that is skeptical of the Trump administration and is both going through both a reform period and overseeing an investigation of possibly incriminating contacts between members of Trump’s campaign team and Russia.

The Daily Beast reports that CIA has started to use tactics normally used to recruit foreign leaders on President Trump. Officials within the agency are studying what’s important to the new president to learn how best to get through to him, with various factions inside CIA viewing the new president as either grossly ignorant about their work or as simply inexperienced.

White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer suggested yesterday that Trump administration might be willing to work with the Kremlin to defeat ISIS and did not rule out the possibility of cooperation with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as well, according to the Wall Street Journal. Spicer’s statement followed a claim yesterday by the Russian defense ministry that Russia and the U.S. had conducted joint airstrikes in Syria, which the Pentagon quickly denied. The Los Angeles Times examines the legal restraints on cooperation with Russia imposed in response to the annexation of Crimea, which may prohibit working closely with the Kremlin in Syria until the “occupation of Ukrainian territory” has ceased.

Spicer also vowed that the United States would “protect our interests” in the South China Sea, The Guardian reports. Spicer’s comments echo those of Rex Tillerson, the Trump administration’s Secretary of State-designee, who during his confirmation hearings said that the United States should send a “clear signal,” to China that their activities in the region needed to cease. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hua Chunying responded forcefully to these comments by Spicer and Tillerson, warning that the United States needed to “speak and act cautiously” in order to “avoid harming the peace and stability in the South China Sea.”

Al Jazeera tells us that Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi announced that he was ordering an investigation into violations of human rights and other abuses allegedly perpetrated by government troops and paramilitary forces over the course of the battle for Mosul. The Iraqi government also retracted a claim made earlier today that the eastern half of Mosul had been recaptured from the Islamic State, referring to it as a “mistake.”

Secretary of Defense James Mattis spoke with both NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg and U.K. Defense Minister Michael Fallon yesterday, confirming to both the United States’ “unshakeable commitment” to NATO. Mattis’s statements come amid concerns from members of NATO over comments by President Trump before his inauguration, in which he called NATO “obsolete,” and said that countries weren’t paying “what they’re supposed to pay” as members of the military alliance. Mattis is “quickly taking charge” at the Pentagon and expects to soon provide the President with a menu of options for the fight against ISIS, CNN writes.

The Journal informs us that President Trump spoke with Egyptian President Abdel Fatah Al Sisi by phone, agreeing to strengthen bilateral ties and to fight against extremism and terrorism. Trump expressed that his administration would fully back the Egyptian government.

The Post reports that Israel has approved a huge expansion of West Bank settlements, adding as many as 2,500 new homes. Former President Barack Obama had opposed the building of any new settlements, though President Trump has signaled greater solicitude and has called for the move of the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem.

Negotiations have concluded between Syrian rebels and the country’s government in Kazakhstan, with Russia, Turkey, and Iran agreeing to set up a commission to monitor violations of the fragile ceasefire, though rebel delegates said they were disappointed by the agreement’s legitimation of Iran’s role in Syria. Meanwhile in Syria, rebels fighting with the moderate Free Syrian Army accused the militant Islamist group Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, which is not a party to the ceasefire, of carrying out a surprise attack on the FSA west of Aleppo. Reuters has more.

Reuters reports that Saudi Arabia’s Labor Ministry has been the latest victim of cyber attacks which have targeted numerous Saudi companies and agencies. The attacks have come in the form of a “Shamoon 2” virus, which was used against Gulf states last year and in 2012 when it was discovered to devastating effect. Adam Meyers, vice president of cybersecurity firm CrowdStrike, stated that the hackers were likely working for the government of Iran and that the attacks will probably continue.

The Guardian informs us that the head of GCHQ, the UK surveillance intelligence agency that works closely with the NSA, has stepped down. Robert Hannigan took over GCHQ in 2014 to oversee a more open approach in the aftermath of the leaks by NSA contractor Edward Snowden. His sudden departure led to speculation of concerns about sharing UK intelligence with the NSA under President Trump, but GCHQ stressed that Hannigan departed for personal reasons. A successor has not been announced.

The Post looks into the status of five Guantanamo detainees who were deemed eligible for resettlement under the Obama administration, but will likely remain in the prison under President Trump. In an apparent policy statement as President-elect, Trump tweeted that “there should be no further releases from Guantanamo.”

ICYMI: Yesterday, on Lawfare

Quinta Jurecic examined a Guantanamo petition for habeas corpus that was filed in response to one of President Trump’s tweets.

Jack Goldsmith and Benjamin Wittes posted the latest Hoover Book Soiree: Edward Jay Epstein and “How America Lost Its Secrets.”

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Jordan A. Brunner is a graduate of the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at Arizona State University, and was a national security intern at the Brookings Institution. Prior to law school, he was a Research Fellow with the New America Foundation/ASU Center for the Future of War, where he researched cybersecurity, cyber war, and cyber conflict alongside Shane Harris, author of @War: The Rise of the Military-Internet Complex. He graduated summa cum laude from Arizona State University with a B.S. in Political Science.

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