Archives for March 2017

These are the right people to get the truth about Russia — and do it quickly

Suzanne Spaulding writes: Most Senate committees adjust the number of majority and minority seats they include in proportion to the overall Senate and have a member of the majority preside if the committee chairman is not present. The Intelligence Committee, on the other hand, is required to have a majority of only one seat, and in the chairman’s absence the vice chairman, chosen from the minority party, presides. Importantly, the vice chairman can issue a subpoena without the chairman, so long as it is “authorized by the committee.’’ As few as one-third of committee members constitute a quorum, and decisions of the committee require only a majority of those present and voting. This helps achieve a greater balance of power that fosters bipartisanship.

By tradition, the Senate’s leadership tends to take care in appointing members to the Intelligence Committee, understanding that the committee can do its work only if it maintains the trust of the intelligence community and the public. The members of the committee also need the trust of their colleagues, who will not have ready access to the intelligence shared daily with the committee. At the moment, the Senate Intelligence Committee’s members tend to be less ideological than their respective caucuses, and the committee has a better record than many others of operating in a bipartisan fashion. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

Michael Flynn’s immunity request rejected by Senate Intelligence Committee

NBC News reports: The Senate Intelligence Committee turned down the request by former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn’s lawyer for a grant of immunity in exchange for his testimony, two congressional sources told NBC News.

A senior congressional official with direct knowledge said Flynn’s lawyer was told it was “wildly preliminary” and that immunity was “not on the table” at the moment. A second source said the committee communicated that it is “not receptive” to Flynn’s request “at this time.” [Continue reading…]

Alex Whiting writes: The Wall Street Journal is reporting that former National Security Advisor Mike Flynn told the FBI and Congress that he is willing to testify in exchange for immunity. But it’s not a serious offer, and it suggests he has nothing to say (or is not willing to say anything that would incriminate others). Although Flynn’s lawyer, Robert Kelner of Covington & Burling, refused to comment for the article, he tweeted out a statement teasing that “General Flynn certainly has a story tell, and he very much wants to tell it, should the circumstances permit.”

As an experienced lawyer, Kelner will know that the Justice Department would never grant immunity for testimony on these terms. Prosecutors would first require that Flynn submit to what’s called a proffer session in which Flynn would agree to tell everything he knows in exchange for the prosecutors agreeing not to use his statement against him. Only after the prosecutors heard what Flynn could offer in terms of evidence against others, and had an opportunity to assess his credibility, would they be willing to discuss any grants of immunity or a cooperation deal. At a minimum, the prosecutors would require Flynn’s lawyer to make a proffer outlining the information that Flynn could provide.

The fact that Flynn and his lawyer have made his offer publicly suggests that he has nothing good to give the prosecutors (either because he cannot incriminate others or is unwilling to do so). If he had something good, Flynn and his lawyer would approach the prosecutors quietly, go through the proffer process in confidence, and reach a deal. Why? Because prosecutors have an interest in keeping their investigation secret, and Flynn’s lawyer knows that. The last thing Flynn’s lawyer would do if he thought he had the goods would be to go public, because that would potentially compromise the criminal inquiry and would certainly irritate the prosecutors, the very people Flynn’s lawyer would be trying to win over. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

Trump’s failing presidency has the GOP in a free fall

Michael Gerson writes: Republicans got an administration that is incompetent. The White House policy process has been erratic and disorganized. It has failed to provide expert analysis or assistance to Congress and did little to effectively advocate the president’s policy in ways that could have united the party.

Republicans got an administration that is morally small. Trump’s proposed budget would require massive cuts in disease research, global development and agricultural programs — just as a famine gathers a hideous strength. The proposed budget practices random acts of gratuitous cruelty.

This is a pretty bad combination: empty, easily distracted, vindictive, shallow, impatient, incompetent and morally small. This is not the profile of a governing party. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

Putin’s no populist, but he can gain from populist movements worldwide

Yulia Netesova and Torrey Taussig write: To what extent does the rise of populist forces around the world benefit Russian president Vladimir Putin? Many right-wing and nationalist parties sweeping across Europe have proven more pro-Russian than their mainstream counterparts. They see Putin as an ad hoc ally in their rebellion against the liberal and globalized world order, while Putin sees them as an opportunity.

Contrary to popular belief, the Russian president is no fan of populism. His support for populist parties in Europe and the United States is simply opportunistic: he will seek to bolster their chances, if they can fracture support for mainstream parties that tend to view Russia as a threat and the transatlantic bond as vital for countering it. His support is a pure calculation in order to survive.

Nowhere is the rise of populism more consequential for Russia than in the United States. But will Trump’s populist flair and desire to shake up the Washington establishment benefit Putin in the long run?

Despite Putin’s support for antiestablishment forces abroad, he stands as a bulwark against populism at home. For Putin, populism is the “headless chicken” that destroyed the Soviet Union, unleashing unprecedented and uncontrollable political and economic forces for which no one was prepared. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

Trump chases arms sales – whatever the human cost

The Guardian reports: The Trump administration’s decision to press ahead with a multibillion-dollar arms sale to Bahrain will dismay Shia opposition groups and international human rights campaigners critical of the Sunni-led state’s authoritarian regime.

However, the sale of 19 advanced Lockheed Martin F-16 fighter jets fits an emerging pattern since Donald Trump took office in January, indicating a new US willingness to pump hi-tech weaponry into global trouble spots and fuel lucrative but destabilising regional arms races.

Barack Obama declined to approve the Bahrain deal last year amid concern over the latest crackdown on opposition leaders since the Shia uprising in 2011. Obama said Bahrain had failed to fulfil promises to improve its record, a verdict confirmed in Human Rights Watch’s latest report.

Trump’s decision reflects his priority of strengthening ties with the Sunni monarchies of the Gulf in the fight against Islamic State, and in their ongoing confrontation with Iran’s Shia theocracy.

Bahrain, which claims it faces Iranian-inspired subversion, is the home port of the US fifth fleet. Britain is building a naval base there, and has maintained arms export sales worth £45m since 2011.

In another move overriding human rights concerns, Trump is also expected to give the go-ahead soon for an expanded new arms package for Saudi Arabia. The sale, of $300m (£240m) of precision-guided munitions, was also blocked by Obama over fears the weapons would be used in Yemen, where a Saudi-led coalition is fighting Iranian-backed Houthi rebels. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

How the Syrian civil war has transformed Hezbollah

Jesse Rosenfeld writes:  The rattle of tracer fire jolts a cellphone camera resting in the gun hole of an upper-level apartment on a shelled-out east Aleppo street. Moments after the Hezbollah fighter has fired incendiary ammunition into the neighborhood below, it’s enveloped in flames.

In another fighter’s video from the battle of Aleppo last fall, a burst of machine-gun fire erupts as Hezbollah militiamen charge forward and take up positions behind pockmarked walls. They shoot indiscriminately at an unseen enemy, which they say is the rebel force Jaysh al-Islam.

In stills taken by a Hezbollah fighter on the front lines of the Aleppo countryside just before the cease-fire was declared on December 30, fighters from Hezbollah (the Party of God) operate tanks flying the flag of Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Damascus. The images provide a glimpse at how the most consequential battle of the Syrian war looked through the eyes of the conquering forces—and they indicate how crucial Lebanon’s Hezbollah militia has been in defending the Assad regime.

The destruction the Syrian government and its allies brought to east Aleppo changed the course of the nearly six-year civil war. Indeed, it could mark the beginning of the end of what started in 2011 as a popular revolution against an authoritarian regime. By laying siege to the unofficial capital of the revolution—indiscriminately bombarding it into rubble, starving and displacing its residents, and committing massacres—Assad’s counter-revolution seems to have ensured the government’s future.

Abu Hussein has been on the front lines of Assad’s strategy and features prominently in the footage and photos from Aleppo that he flips through on his phone. He is a Hezbollah commander in charge of a rapid-intervention unit of 200 fighters. They participated in the regime’s retaking of Aleppo last year as well as the ongoing fighting around Palmyra. The boisterous militant, who uses a nom de guerre because he is not authorized to speak to the media, contends that Hezbollah has been the Assad regime’s backbone, changing the course of the war on the ground. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

Israel approves first new West Bank settlement in 20 years

BBC News reports: Israel has approved the establishment of its first new Jewish settlement in the occupied West Bank in two decades.

The security cabinet voted unanimously late on Thursday to begin construction on a hilltop known as “Geulat Zion”, near the Palestinian city of Nablus.

It will be used to house some 40 families whose homes were cleared from an unauthorised settlement outpost.

Palestinian officials have condemned the move and called on the international community to intervene.

It comes despite US President Donald Trump asking Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last month to “hold back” on settlement construction. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

The blind spots in Trump’s foreign policy

Javier Corrales writes: President Trump’s “skinny budget” might be a misnomer, because in foreign policy, at least, it is actually giving us fat nationalism. The biggest winners are the military, the Homeland Security Department and, of course, the wall. The biggest loser is the State Department and thus diplomacy. Mr. Trump is all about intimidating more and negotiating less. This is the hallmark of xenophobic nationalism.

Mr. Trump is also blending xenophobic nationalism with protectionism. The jury is still out on how protectionist the Trump administration wants to be. But in relation to Latin America, even before revealing his budget, Mr. Trump already showed a clear preference for protectionism.

He walked away from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which was as much about United States trade with Latin America’s rising Pacific economies as it was about trade with Asia. He has trashed Nafta, a trade agreement that is more important as a symbol of the reconciliation between the United States and Mexico than it is as a change in the economic fortune of the United States. His administration has expressed reservations about trade normalization with Cuba and the peace accord in Colombia, a nation with which the United States has a major trade agreement and a history of close cooperation.

One problem with nationalist protectionism is that as an ideology, it is prone to double blindness: It is blind both to its exaggerations and to its consequences.

Xenophobic nationalists exaggerate the extent to which the outside world takes advantage of the nation. The Chinese are manipulating their currency, Mexicans are taking jobs away, military allies are free-riding, and the rest of the world is misbehaving because it doesn’t fear you enough. And all of this happens “while we sit here like a bunch of dummies,” as Mr. Trump has tweeted.

Nationalists thus exaggerate both the relative gains that others make at their expense, and the relative costs their own nations incur. They are blind to the concept of mutual gain; they see only abuse. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

Climate progress, with or without Trump

Michael Bloomberg writes: President Trump’s unfortunate and misguided rollback of environmental protections has led to a depressing and widespread belief that the United States can no longer meet its commitment under the Paris climate change agreement. But here’s the good news: It’s wrong.

No matter what roadblocks the White House and Congress throw up, the United States can — and I’m confident, will — meet the commitment it made in Paris in 2015 to reduce greenhouse gas emissions that are warming the planet. Let me explain why, and why correcting the false perception is so important.

Those who believe that the Trump administration will end American leadership on climate change are making the same mistake as those who believe that it will put coal miners back to work: overestimating Washington’s ability to influence energy markets, and underestimating the role that cities, states, businesses and consumers are playing in driving down emissions on their own.

Though few people realize it, more than 250 coal plants — almost half of the total number in this country — have announced in recent years that they will close or switch to cleaner fuels. Washington isn’t putting these plants out of business; the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan hasn’t even gone into effect yet.

They are closing because consumers are demanding energy from sources that don’t poison their air and water, and because energy companies are providing cleaner and cheaper alternatives. When two coal plant closings were announced last week, in southern Ohio, the company explained that they were no longer “economically viable.” That’s increasingly true for the whole industry. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

Fmr. FBI agent says Russia, Trump collusion worries him

 

Facebooktwittermail

Is the Trump White House spying on the FBI?

Barton Gellman writes: If Nunes saw reports that named Trump or his associates, as he said, the initiative for naming names did not come from the originating intelligence agency. That is not how the process works. The names could only have been unmasked if the customers—who seem in this case to have been Trump’s White House appointees—made that request themselves. If anyone breached the president’s privacy, the perpetrators were working down the hall from him. (Okay, probably in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building next door.) It is of course hypocritical, even deceptive, for Nunes to lay that blame at the feet of intelligence officials, but that is not the central concern either.

If events took place as just described, then what exactly were Trump’s appointees doing? I am not talking only about the political chore of ginning up (ostensible) support for the president’s baseless claims about illegal surveillance by President Obama. I mean this: why would a White House lawyer and the top White House intelligence adviser be requesting copies of these surveillance reports in the first place? Why would they go on to ask that the names be unmasked? There is no chance that the FBI would brief them about the substance or progress of its investigation into the Trump campaign’s connections to the Russian government. Were the president’s men using the surveillance assets of the U.S. government to track the FBI investigation from the outside? [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

FBI visits office of Saipan casino run by Trump protege

Bloomberg reports: Agents from the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation visited an office belonging to the operator of a casino on the remote U.S. island of Saipan that has attracted attention for its huge revenues, according to a local legislator and residents.

FBI personnel, accompanied by uniformed police officers, arrived Thursday morning at a local office used by Imperial Pacific International Holdings Ltd., the Hong Kong-based company that owns the Best Sunshine Live casino, local residents said. They stayed for several hours, with local police blocking access to the building.

“There definitely was some kind of investigation or raid being done,” said Ed Propst, a member of the territorial legislature. “It appears to be a joint effort between local and federal authorities.” [Continue reading…]

In November, Bloomberg reported: On a tiny island in the western Pacific, at the end of a duty-free mall wedged between a one-story laundromat and a cell-phone shop, you’ll find what may be the most successful casino of all time.

The awkwardly named Best Sunshine Live hardly looks like a high-roller hub. Construction workers bet $5 or $10 at a time on roulette and baccarat in a fug of nicotine. Clustered in a far corner are a handful of tables for so-called VIP gamblers, which at 8:30 p.m. on a September Saturday are almost empty. A nearby bar has just a couple of patrons.

Nothing about the facility, which opened last year on the U.S. island of Saipan, hints at the money flowing through it—table for table, far more than at the biggest casinos in Macau, the world’s number-one gambling capital. Nor is there any sign of the connections of its owner, Hong Kong-listed Imperial Pacific International Holdings Ltd., which has a market value of $2.4 billion.

It’s a power list that includes a former director of the Central Intelligence Agency, a former director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and three former U.S. governors, including past chairmen of both the Democratic and Republican National Committees. Behind them all: a Donald Trump protege, Mark Brown, who ran the Republican president-elect’s Atlantic City casino empire and is now Imperial Pacific’s chief executive officer.

With that backing, Best Sunshine is posting numbers that stagger industry veterans. The daily reported revenue for each of its VIP tables in the first half of the year, about $170,000, is almost eight times the average of Macau’s largest casinos. Its 16 VIP tables alone generate revenue that’s more than half of the receipts from 178 high-stakes tables at Wynn Resorts Ltd.’s flagship casino in the Chinese territory, a 20-story palace with three Michelin-starred restaurants.

The revenue figures, or actual wins by the house, are just a fraction of total bets. In September, Imperial Pacific reported a record $3.9 billion in bets at its casino—meaning the 100 or so high-rollers who it says come through its doors monthly each wagered an average of $39 million. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

Flynn and Trump’s views on immunity, crimes, and FBI investigations

Facebooktwittermail

Flynn offers to testify in Trump-Russia probe in exchange for immunity

The Wall Street Journal reports: Mike Flynn, President Donald Trump’s former national security adviser, has told the Federal Bureau of Investigation and congressional officials investigating the Trump campaign’s potential ties to Russia that he is willing to be interviewed in exchange for a grant of immunity from prosecution, according to officials with knowledge of the matter.

As an adviser to Mr. Trump’s presidential campaign, and later one of Mr. Trump’s top aides in the White House, Mr. Flynn was privy to some of the most sensitive foreign-policy deliberations of the new administration and was directly involved in discussions about the possible lifting of sanctions on Russia imposed by the Obama administration.

He has made the offer to the FBI and the House and Senate intelligence committees though his lawyer but has so far found no takers, the officials said. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

Two White House officials helped give Nunes intelligence reports

The New York Times reports: A pair of White House officials helped provide Representative Devin Nunes of California, a Republican and the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, with the intelligence reports that showed that President Trump and his associates were incidentally swept up in foreign surveillance by American spy agencies.

The revelation on Thursday that White House officials disclosed the reports, which Mr. Nunes then discussed with Mr. Trump, is likely to fuel criticism that the intelligence chairman has been too eager to do the bidding of the Trump administration while his committee is supposed to be conducting an independent investigation of Russia’s meddling in the presidential election.

It is the latest twist of a bizarre Washington drama that began after dark on March 21, when Mr. Nunes got a call from a person he has described only as a source. The call came as he was riding across town in an Uber car, and he quickly diverted to the White House. The next day, Mr. Nunes gave a hastily arranged news conference before running off to brief Mr. Trump on what he had learned the night before from — as it turns out — White House officials.

The chain of events — and who helped provide the intelligence to Mr. Nunes — was detailed to The New York Times by four American officials.

Since disclosing the existence of the intelligence reports, Mr. Nunes has refused to identify his sources, saying he needed to protect them so others would feel safe coming to the committee with sensitive information. In his public comments, he has described his sources as whistle-blowers trying to expose wrongdoing at great risk to themselves.

That does not appear to be the case. Several current American officials identified the White House officials as Ezra Cohen-Watnick, the senior director for intelligence at the National Security Council, and Michael Ellis, a lawyer who works on national security issues at the White House Counsel’s Office and was previously counsel to Mr. Nunes’s committee. Though neither has been accused of breaking any laws, they do appear to have sought to use intelligence to advance the political goals of the Trump administration. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

Unlike a divorce, the terms of Brexit aren’t up for discussion

Joris Luyendijk writes: As Britain formally notifies the EU of its intention to leave it is essential for Brits and Europeans alike to be aware of what is about to start. Both sides tend to speak of a “divorce”, while some British commentators compare the coming negotiations to a “game of chicken”.

These figures of speech are deeply misleading as they feed into a narrative that the UK is still a world power able to shape the circumstances it finds itself in – if not to dictate its terms outright. To see how much this line of thought is still alive, consider how Britain spent the past nine months discussing whether it preferred a “soft” or a “hard” Brexit. The implication was that Britain had a choice – in truth the EU has made it clear from the outset that there are two options only: hard Brexit or no Brexit.

A divorce is between two equal partners. But the UK is to the EU what Belgium, Austria or Portugal are to Germany: an entity eight times as small. If the EU informs the UK that “no soft Brexit means no soft Brexit” then that is what it is.

For the same reason the analogy of a “game of chicken” for the coming negotiations should be cast aside. The UK and the EU may be driving at furious speed into one another, each expecting the other to swerve. But if the UK is a Mini then the EU is a truck.

Except that it is not, because this too is a misleading analogy. Angela Merkel runs the EU’s most important and powerful country but she does not determine what happens in the EU, if only because Germany comprises a mere 20% of the EU economy and only 16% of its population. As much as the Brexiteers like to talk of a European superstate the fact is that no such thing exists. The European commission, the European parliament and the EU member states share power without a single overriding body or office to coordinate events or impose its will. To return to the “game of chicken” analogy: the EU truck has no driver. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

Theresa May’s empty Brexit promises

John Cassidy writes: Brexit has begun. On Tuesday evening, Theresa May, the British Prime Minister, signed a letter formally giving notice that the United Kingdom intends to leave the European Union. On Wednesday, Sir Tim Barrow, the U.K.’s Ambassador to the E.U., delivered the letter to Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council. Next up: a long set of talks about the terms of Britain’s exit.

“When I sit around the negotiating table in the months ahead, I will represent every person in the United Kingdom—young and old, rich and poor, city, town, country, and all the villages and hamlets in between,” May told the House of Commons on Wednesday. “It is my fierce determination to get the right deal for every single person in this country. For, as we face the opportunities ahead of us on this momentous journey, our shared values, interests, and ambitions can—and must—bring us together.”

“We all want to see a Britain that is stronger than it is today,” she added. “We all want a country that is fairer so that everyone has the chance to succeed. We all want a nation that is safe and secure for our children and grandchildren. We all want to live in a truly global Britain that gets out and builds relationships with old friends and new allies around the world.”

May’s speech was filled with so many false claims, so much cant, and so many examples of wishful thinking that it is hard to know where to begin. Her vow to represent “every person” in the U.K. is blatantly false. Last year’s referendum, in which 51.9 per cent of the people who voted signalled a preference to leave the E.U., represented a victory for the old, the less-educated, and the xenophobic. The young, the college-educated, and the outward-looking all rejected, and still reject, Brexit. Many of them regard it as a willful act of self-destruction, and future historians will surely agree with them. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

NGOs under attack for saving too many lives in the Mediterranean

By Nando Sigona, University of Birmingham

European politicians and media have accused non-governmental organisations (NGOs) carrying out search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean of undermining their efforts to stem the flow of migration from Libya. Recent accusations by the EU’s border agency Frontex mark a new low in the trend of criminalising those helping migrants and refugees in Europe. The Conversation

Until recently, negative media coverage and police investigations for so-called “crimes of solidarity” were directed mostly at small NGOs and volunteers. Now a main target of Frontex’s ire is the Nobel Peace Prize winner Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), which is accused with other NGOs of colluding with human smugglers and ultimately being responsible for more migrants dying at sea.

Speaking in late February, the Frontex director, Fabrice Leggeri, said the presence of NGO vessels in the proximity of Libyan waters “leads traffickers to force even more migrants on to unseaworthy boats with insufficient water and fuel than in previous years”. MSF labelled the charges “extremely serious and damaging” and said its humanitarian action was not “the cause but a response” to the crisis.

Leggeri’s comments are not an isolated case and a number of European politicians have put forward similar statements. But their main intent is to divert attention away from their own inactivity and escape responsibility for the growth in irregular crossings and deaths across the central Mediterranean route from Libya to Europe.

The current focus on search and rescue operations at sea carried out by NGOs signals a more general shift in the political and public mood in Europe. Despite superficial public displays of outrage and condemnation for Donald Trump’s anti-immigration and anti-refugee stances in the US, similar initiatives and a similar rhetoric have gradually become part of the political mainstream in several European member states.

[Read more…]

Facebooktwittermail