Today's Headlines and Commentary

Jordan Brunner
Wednesday, March 15, 2017, 2:33 PM

The Washington Post informs us that the Justice Department has issued indictments for two Russian FSB officers and two criminal hackers for the theft of 500 million Yahoo user accounts in 2014.

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The Washington Post informs us that the Justice Department has issued indictments for two Russian FSB officers and two criminal hackers for the theft of 500 million Yahoo user accounts in 2014. The charges, which include hacking, wire fraud, trade secret theft, and economic espionage, are the first criminal cyber charges leveled against Russian government officials. The case is the largest ever brought on hacking issues by the U.S. government. According to a CNN report, one of the two FSB officers listed in the indictment was arrested by the Russian government in December on suspicion of having spied for the United States, though the Department of Justice said that DOJ has not yet confirmed this.

Meanwhile, the Hill writes that White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said yesterday that Trump is “extremely confident” that the Department of Justice will produce evidence that former President Obama tapped his phones last year. The optimistic prediction comes as the Justice Department has asked for more time to comply with the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence’s request for evidence backing up Trump’s claim. CNN adds that HPSCI Chairman Devin Nunes (R-CA) said in a statement to the press today that neither he nor ranking member Adam Schiff (D-CA) have seen any evidence to support the claim.

Politico tells us that FBI Director James Comey has agreed to appear at the HPSCI’s public hearing on March 20th to testify on his knowledge of Russia’s alleged meddling into the 2016 presidential election. Separately, Comey will privately brief Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and ranking member Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) on the matter on March 22nd. Grassley stated yesterday that he would not schedule a committee vote for Trump’s nominee for deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein, until Comey briefed the committee.

The Post notes that Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis has withdrawn retired senior diplomat Anne W. Patterson from consideration as his choice for undersecretary for policy after the White House indicated its unwillingness to fight what it saw as a battle for confirmation. Senators Tom Cotton (R-AR) and Ted Cruz (R-TX), both members of the Senate Armed Services Committee, had strongly opposed the nomination. But Defense News reports that Mattis has successfully pushed for the removal of Trump aide Mira Ricardel from the Department of Defense, with one official saying, “Mattis told the White House either Mira goes, or he walks. They blinked.”

Steve Bannon and Jared Kushner overruled national security advisor Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster’s attempt to move an NSC staffer hired by former national security advisor Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn to another position on the National Security Council, according to Politico. Trump himself ultimately weighed in and affirmed that the staffer, Ezra Cohen-Watnick, would stay on as intelligence director. The decision provokes questions over how much autonomy McMaster has and highlights ongoing tensions between the intelligence agencies and key Trump aides.

Politico notes that Seattle-based federal district court Judge James Robart will hold a hearing on a request by numerous states to issue an injunction against the new travel ban issued by the Trump administration today. Judge Robart issued the broadest injunction against the original travel ban, which was upheld by the Ninth Circuit. Buzzfeed reports on another hearing on the travel ban in the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland. The revised order is set to go into effect at 12:01 a.m. Eastern time tomorrow.

The Daily Beast tells us that the 1040 form of Trump’s 2005 tax returns shows that Trump earned more than $150 million and paid $5.3 million in federal income tax, along with $31 million under the alternative minimum tax. The tax return was mailed to Trump biographer David Cay Johnston, who published the return on his website, Rachel Maddow of MSNBC teased the release of the return on her network, prompting the White House to preemptively release a statement saying that return was “illegally published.”

In unpublished written testimony in response to questions from senators during the confirmation process, Secretary Mattis named climate change as a threat to American interests abroad and Pentagon assets everywhere. Mattis’s comments echo others he has made in the past, but place him in direct contrast with both Trump and EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, both of whom have attempted to cast doubt on the established science of climate change. ProPublica has more.

A new Department of Defense plan would send up to 1,000 ground troops to Syria in support of the Raqqa offensive, the Post writes. The new deployment could double the amount of U.S. troops in the country, though troops would not take part in combat and would act as advisors to Kurdish and Arab forces fighting ISIS. The new Pentagon plan, which would also abolish the caps for troop deployments to Iraq and Syria, is set to be delivered to President Trump by the end of March.

The BBC reports that at least 31 people were killed in a suicide bomb attack at the main court complex in Damascus, Syria this morning. One bomber blew himself up after police tried to stop him from entering the Palace of Justice, and later another suicide bomber attacked a restaurant nearby, injuring 20 more people. The attacks come on the sixth anniversary of the uprising against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

The Wall Street Journal tells us that Saudi Arabia’s powerful deputy crown prince Mohammed bin Salman, who is second-in-line for the throne, met with Trump yesterday as the kingdom aims to reset ties with Washington and tries to push potential job-creating investments in the United States. Trump was joined by Vice President Mike Pence, senior White House adviser Jared Kushner, national security adviser Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, White House chief of staff Reince Priebus, and White House chief strategist Steve Bannon.

The Post writes that the U.S. envoy for the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, Jason Greenblatt, ended his first tour of the Middle East yesterday with commitments from Israel and the Palestinians to advance a “genuine and lasting peace.” A joint U.S.-Palestinian statement gave few details as to how Trump plans to break the decades of deadlock and hostilities, but the trip by Greenblatt seemed largely aimed at listening to both sides as the White House decides how to move forward.

Foreign Policy reports that Somali pirates seized an oil tanker on Monday in the first successful pirate raid on a commercial vessel since 2012. The Aris 13 oil tanker, with a crew of eight Sri Lankans, sent out a distress signal while on its trip from Djibouti to Mogadishu. They were approached by two skiffs, and the pirates took over the ship, bringing it towards the town of Alula. It is too early to speculate as to whether this is will spark a new wave of attacks or is just an isolated incident, but the move shows that efforts by the Navy have curbed but not completely eradicated piracy in the region.

Reuters tells us that new satellite images provided by Planet Labs show that China has started fresh construction work in the South China Sea, which regional military attaches and experts believe demonstrates China’s determination to build up its network of reefs and islets even as Beijing seeks to avoid confrontation with the Trump administration. The images, which show North Island in the Paracels, appear to display land clearing and possible preparation for a harbor.

Reuters also reports that Taiwan is increasingly alarmed by China’s behavior in the region as laid out in its 2017 Quadrennial Defense Review, which highlights the uncertainty over the future strategic direction of the United States under the Trump administration and the “conflict crisis” potential in the disputed South China Sea, among other things.

Meanwhile, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has touched down in Tokyo, where he will grapple with concerns over North Korea’s the missile tests and increasing provocations, CNN informs us. Tillerson meets with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida. Reuters adds that the sole news outlet to follow Tillerson as he tours three Asian countries is the conservative Independent Journal Review, sparking complaints from major media organizations including Reuters, CNN, the New York Times, and the Washington Post.

Foreign Policy notes that despite tensions between allies, the United States, South Korea, and Japan began two days of joint drills yesterday to better be able to respond to ballistic missiles from North Korea. The Chinese Foreign Ministry took all sides to task yesterday for the movements, saying that both North Korea and the U.S. and its allies were provoking confrontation.

Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered Russian officials yesterday to seal an agreement which will effectively incorporate the armed forces of Georgia’s breakaway South Ossetia region into Russia's military command structure, according to Reuters. Georgia condemned the move, which will most likely spark accusation from the West that Russia is absorbing the breakaway region by stealth, despite international law that makes the region part of Georgia’s sovereign territory.

The Hill informs us that a three-judge panel of the U.S. Army Court of Criminal Appeals has upheld a decision not to toss out Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl’s case over comments by Trump during the election campaign calling Bergdahl a traitor. Bergdahl’s lawyers have vowed to appeal the ruling to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces. Bergdahl faces a court martial on charges of desertion and misbehavior after walking off his post in Afghanistan in 2009 and being captured by the Taliban, before being released in 2014 in a prisoner swap.

The Washington Post informs us that the Justice Department unsealed a fresh indictment yesterday charging eight Navy officials, including an admiral, with corruption and other crimes in the “Fat Leonard” bribery case. Navy personnel are accused of taking bribes in the form of lavish gifts, prostitutes, and luxury hotel stays courtesy of Leonard Glen “Fat Leonard” Francis, a Singapore-based contractor who pleaded guilty of defrauding the Navy of tens of millions of dollars. In exchange, these officers allegedly provided Francis with classified or inside information that allowed him to gouge the Navy for millions. The Post profiles “Fat Leonard”’s rise to prominence, and War Is Boring has an more in-depth account of the scandal here.

Marine Corps Commandant General Robert G. Neller testified yesterday before the Senate Armed Services Committee regarding the scandal over a group of former and current male Marines sharing explicit photos of their female Marine colleagues, with lawmakers on both sides of the aisle calling it a “sad day for the Marine Corps,” according to the Post. The problem is reportedly larger than the Marine Corps, having spread to other services and even into a few service academies.

ICYMI: Yesterday, on Lawfare

Susan Hennessey and Benjamin Wittes expressed their gratitude to Emily Bazelon for her thoughtful profile of Lawfare in the New York Times Magazine.

Stewart Baker posted the Steptoe Cyberlaw Podcast: What Cybersecurity Experts Tell Their Moms about Computer Security.

Russell A. Miller examined how to balance privacy and security on surveillance in Germany.

Bobby Chesney commented on the CIA’s apparently revived authority to conduct drone strikes.

Ben and Jack Goldsmith posted an announcement of the next Hoover Book Soiree: Graeme Wood’s The Way of the Stranger: Encounters with the Islamic State.

Paul Lewis provided advice to the Trump administration on the continuing need to close the Guantanamo Bay detention facility.

J. Dana Stuster updated the Middle East Ticker.

Jane Chong explained what sanctuary jurisdiction is in Part II of her four-part essay on sanctuary cities.

Jordan Brunner discussed how Trump can understand the national security issue of climate change in his review of the new documentary The Age of Consequences.

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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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