Is the U.S. weighing a tougher response to Russia over Syria crisis?

Reuters reports: Obama administration officials have begun considering tougher responses to the Russian-backed Syrian government assault on Aleppo, including military options, as rising tensions with Moscow diminish hopes for diplomatic solutions from the Middle East to Ukraine and cyberspace, U.S. officials said on Wednesday.

The new discussions were being held at “staff level,” and have yet to produce any recommendations to President Barack Obama, who has resisted ordering military action against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in the country’s multisided civil war.

But the deliberations coincide with Secretary of State John Kerry threatening to halt diplomacy with Russia on Syria and holding Moscow responsible for dropping incendiary bombs on rebel areas of Aleppo, Syria’s largest city. It was the stiffest U.S. warning to the Russians since the Sept. 19 collapse of a truce they jointly brokered.

Even administration advocates of a more muscular U.S. response said on Wednesday that it was not clear what, if anything, the president would do, and that his options “begin at tougher talk,” as one official put it.

One official said that before any action could be taken, Washington would first have “follow through on Kerry’s threat and break off talks with the Russians” on Syria.

But the heavy use of Russian airpower in Syria has compounded U.S. distrust of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s geopolitical intentions, not only in the 5-1/2 year civil war, but also in the Ukraine conflict and in what U.S. officials say are Russian-backed cyber attacks on U.S. political targets.

The U.S. officials said the failure of diplomacy in Syria has left the Obama administration no choice but to consider alternatives, most of which involve some use of force and have been examined before but held in abeyance. [Continue reading…]

The basis for this reporting appears to be an exchange in Tuesday’s State Department press briefing. The suggestion that the administration is now seriously considering its military options sounds like a bit of a stretch. Much more likely is that it is merely restating every administration’s fallback position as it struggles to craft policy: we are keeping all options on the table.

Even if Kerry or Obama was to say, diplomacy has failed, they remain doctrinally wedded to the view that there is no military solution to this conflict.

So, if diplomacy has indeed reached a dead end, I don’t expect to see a tougher response from Obama, but instead, no response at all. All he’s doing now is counting the days until his departure from the Oval Office.

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The White House asked Congress to keep quiet on Russian hacking

BuzzFeed reports: The White House sought to muzzle two of Congress’s top intelligence officials when they decided to publicly accuse Russia of meddling in the US election last week, sources familiar with the matter told BuzzFeed News.

In a statement released Friday, Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Rep. Adam Schiff, the vice-chairmen of the Senate and House Intelligence Committees respectively, formally accused Russia of attempting to influence the US election. It was the first official, on-record confirmation from US government officials that the Kremlin is actively working to manipulate public confidence in the country’s election system.

But sources tell BuzzFeed News that the White House — which has stayed silent despite mounting pressure to call out its Moscow adversaries — tried to delay the statement’s release. The public accusation was of such concern to the administration that White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough was personally involved in the negotiations over releasing it, according to a congressional source.

Feinstein and Schiff, both Democrats, agreed to omit part of their original statement for security reasons, according to another congressional source. That request, which stemmed from concerns over classification, came from the CIA, a congressional source added Wednesday. [Continue reading…]

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FBI probes hacks targeting phones of Democratic Party officials

Reuters reports: The FBI is investigating suspected attempts to hack mobile phones used by Democratic Party officials as recently as the past month, four people with direct knowledge of the attack and the investigation told Reuters.

The revelation underscores the widening scope of the U.S. criminal inquiry into cyber attacks on Democratic Party organizations, including the presidential campaign of its candidate, former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

U.S. officials have said they believe those attacks were orchestrated by hackers backed by the Russian government, possibly to disrupt the Nov. 8 election in which Clinton faces Republican Party candidate Donald Trump. Russia has dismissed allegations it was involved in cyber attacks on the organizations.

The more recent attempted phone hacking also appears to have been conducted by Russian-backed hackers, two people with knowledge of the situation said. [Continue reading…]

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U.S. condemnations of assault on Aleppo provide no relief to the Syrians getting bombed

An editorial in the Washington Post says: “What Russia is sponsoring and doing” in the Syrian city of Aleppo “is barbarism,” U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power said on Sunday. She’s right: For days, Russian and Syrian planes have rained bombs — including white phosphorus, cluster munitions and “bunker-busters” designed to penetrate basements — on the rebel-held side of the city. Hundreds of civilians have been killed; as many as half are children. U.N. special envoy Staffan de Mistura described “new heights of horror.” Ms. Power said that “instead of helping get lifesaving aid to civilians, Russia and [Syria] are bombing the humanitarian convoys, hospitals and first responders who are trying desperately to keep people alive.”

It goes without saying that this war-crimes-rich offensive, which Syria’s U.N. ambassador said is aimed at recapturing east Aleppo, has shredded the Obama administration’s attempt to win Russian and Syrian compliance with a cessation of hostilities. So naturally reporters asked senior officials as the attack was getting underway how the United States would respond. “I don’t think . . . this is the time to say where we will go from here,” one answered. Said another: “We’re waiting to see what the Russians come back with.”

In other words: Hem, haw.

By Monday, the administration’s response seemed clear: It will hotly condemn the assault on Aleppo, but do absolutely nothing to stop it. On the contrary, Secretary of State John F. Kerry insisted he will continue to go back to the regime of Vladi­mir Putin with diplomatic offers, hoping it will choose to stop bombing. “The United States makes absolutely no apology for going the extra mile to try and ease the suffering of the Syrian people,” he grandly declared after a meeting Thursday on Syria. By “extra mile,” he doesn’t mean actual U.S. steps to protect civilians — just more futile and debasing appeals to Moscow.

The Putin and Bashar al-Assad regimes are well aware that the only U.S. action President Obama has authorized is diplomatic, and that they are therefore under no pressure to alter their behavior.[Continue reading…]

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America’s duty to take in refugees

Scott Arbeiter writes: This year the United States will take in 85,000 of the world’s most vulnerable so they can begin new lives in America, the highest number since 2001. But at a time when 65 million people have been displaced by violence, and 20 million of them are classified as refugees — more than half of them children — it is not enough.

Recently, the Obama administration took a small step forward, raising the number of refugees the country will let in to 110,000 for the next fiscal year. The next step is for Congress to allocate resources for resettlement — something it has always done, in a bipartisan fashion, since the refugee crisis after World War II.

Unfortunately, this time, a vocal minority in Congress, the states and the public are arguing that we should respond to this humanitarian crisis by pulling up the welcome mat, even for families fleeing the civil war in Syria and the brutality of the Islamic State. Senator Jeff Sessions, Republican of Alabama, called the administration’s increase “reckless and extreme.”

Fear of refugees is not new. In 1939, the United States turned away more than 900 Jews fleeing Hitler’s Germany because of worries that some might be Nazi conspirators or Communists. More than a quarter of those refugees died in the Holocaust. [Continue reading…]

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U.S. intel officials probe ties between Trump adviser and Kremlin

Michael Isikoff reports: U.S. intelligence officials are seeking to determine whether an American businessman identified by Donald Trump as one of his foreign policy advisers has opened up private communications with senior Russian officials — including talks about the possible lifting of economic sanctions if the Republican nominee becomes president, according to multiple sources who have been briefed on the issue.

The activities of Trump adviser Carter Page, who has extensive business interests in Russia, have been discussed with senior members of Congress during recent briefings about suspected efforts by Moscow to influence the presidential election, the sources said. After one of those briefings, Senate minority leader Harry Reid wrote FBI Director James Comey, citing reports of meetings between a Trump adviser (a reference to Page) and “high ranking sanctioned individuals” in Moscow over the summer as evidence of “significant and disturbing ties” between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin that needed to be investigated by the bureau.

Some of those briefed were “taken aback” when they learned about Page’s contacts in Moscow, viewing them as a possible back channel to the Russians that could undercut U.S. foreign policy, said a congressional source familiar with the briefings but who asked for anonymity due to the sensitivity of the subject. The source added that U.S. officials in the briefings indicated that intelligence reports about the adviser’s talks with senior Russian officials close to President Vladimir Putin were being “actively monitored and investigated.” [Continue reading…]

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Obama used a pseudonym in emails with Clinton, FBI documents reveal

Politico reports: President Barack Obama used a pseudonym in email communications with Hillary Clinton and others, according to FBI records made public Friday.

The disclosure came as the FBI released its second batch of documents from its investigation into Clinton’s private email server during her tenure as secretary of state.

The 189 pages the bureau released includes interviews with some of Clinton’s closest aides, such as Huma Abedin and Cheryl Mills; senior State Department officials; and even Marcel Lazar, better known as the Romanian hacker “Guccifer.”

In an April 5, 2016 interview with the FBI, Abedin was shown an email exchange between Clinton and Obama, but the longtime Clinton aide did not recognize the name of the sender.

“Once informed that the sender’s name is believed to be pseudonym used by the president, Abedin exclaimed: ‘How is this not classified?'” the report says. “Abedin then expressed her amazement at the president’s use of a pseudonym and asked if she could have a copy of the email.” [Continue reading…]

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Chemical weapons are being used in Iraq – but the U.S. won’t raise hell about it

By Michelle Bentley, Royal Holloway

The group known as Islamic State (IS) reportedly used a sulpur-mustard gas against US troops in Iraq. It was detected in a black oily substance found on a rocket fired at an American airbase in Qayyarah, south of the city of Mosul.

None of the soldiers stationed at the airbase – deployed there to support a forthcoming Iraqi offensive to take back Mosul from IS – have suffered any symptoms of mustard gas poisoning. The base took decontamination measures after the rocket hit.

This is not the group’s first chemical strike. Reports are mounting up that weapons of mass destruction (WMD) are now part of the organisation’s arsenal – and all thanks to US foreign policy.

The US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the regional chaos that followed is a major reason why IS emerged in the first place; had the war never happened, the group might never have existed, and it certainly wouldn’t have been able to tear through and take control of huge swathes of the country.

So at last, the US has finally found WMD in Iraq, but only after its own actions allowed them to spring up there again.

[Read more…]

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Ted Cruz is wrong about how free speech is censored on the Internet

Tim Berners-Lee and Daniel Weitzner writes: Sen. Ted Cruz wants to engineer a United States takeover of a key Internet organization, ICANN, in the name of protecting freedom of expression.

Cruz’s proposal is one of the key sticking points in finalizing the government spending bill necessary to avert a government shutdown on Sept. 30.

But the misguided call for the United States to exert unilateral control over ICANN does nothing to advance free speech because ICANN, in fact, has no power whatsoever over individual speech online. ICANN — the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers — supervises domain names on the Internet. The actual flow of traffic, and therefore speech, is up to individual network and platform operators.

There is no international law or treaty that calls the Internet into existence or forces everyone to use the same standards and technology. Rather, it is a voluntary effort of people around the world. [Continue reading…]

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America has spent almost $5 trillion on wars since 9/11

The Intercept reports: The total U.S. budgetary cost of war since 2001 is $4.79 trillion, according to a report released this week from Brown University’s Watson Institute. That’s the highest estimate yet.

Neta Crawford of Boston University, the author of the report, included interest on borrowing, future veterans needs, and the cost of homeland security in her calculations.

The amount of $4.79 trillion, “so large as to be almost incomprehensible,” she writes, adds up like this: [Continue reading…]

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Pentagon grudgingly accepts Syria deal amid deep mistrust of Russia

The Washington Post reports: Hours after reaching an agreement on Syria last Friday with Secretary of State John F. Kerry and clearing the final deal with Moscow, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov wandered the halls of their meeting venue in Geneva, waiting for Kerry to get the okay from Washington.

In a secure room upstairs, a frustrated Kerry was on hold. Already deep into a conference call with President Obama’s top national security team, he was waiting for the Defense Department to locate its legal counsel to sign off on one of the many provisions of the accord that Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter was questioning.

“I hope before Washington gets some sleep, we can get some news,” Lavrov said as he offered pizza and vodka to reporters awaiting an announcement. Clearly on a propaganda roll, he observed that the wheels of government appeared to turn more efficiently in his country than in the United States.

Obama, who did not attend the principals’ meeting, ultimately approved the agreement and a news conference was held at midnight, Geneva time.

But beneath the politics and diplomacy of the deal — which began with a cease-fire Monday, to be followed, if it succeeds, by coordinated U.S.-Russian counterterrorism airstrikes — the prospect of military-to-military cooperation does not sit well with the Defense Department.

“There is a trust deficit with the Russians; it is not clear to us what their objectives are,” Gen. Joseph L. Votel, head of the U.S. Central Command, said Wednesday. “They say one thing, and we don’t necessarily see them following up on this.”

That mistrust resides most deeply in Carter, who officials familiar with the Russia negotiations said almost single-handedly delayed Friday’s final agreement with his repeated questions during the conference call. Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, voiced little objection during the principals’ meeting, officials said. [Continue reading…]

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As Russia reasserts itself, U.S. intelligence agencies focus anew on the Kremlin

The Washington Post reports: U.S. intelligence agencies are expanding spying operations against Russia on a greater scale than at any time since the end of the Cold War, U.S. officials said.

The mobilization involves clandestine CIA operatives, National Security Agency cyberespionage capabilities, satellite systems and other intelligence assets, officials said, describing a shift in resources across spy services that had previously diverted attention from Russia to focus on terrorist threats and U.S. war zones.

U.S. officials said the moves are part of an effort to rebuild U.S. intelligence capabilities that had continued to atrophy even as Russia sought to reassert itself as a global power. Over the past two years, officials said, the United States was caught flat-footed by Moscow’s aggression, including its annexation of Crimea, its intervention in the war in Syria and its suspected role in hacking operations against the United States and Europe.

U.S. spy agencies “are playing catch-up big time” with Russia, a senior U.S. intelligence official said. Terrorism remains the top concern for American intelligence services, the official said, but recent directives from the White House and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) have moved Russia up the list of intelligence priorities for the first time since the Soviet Union’s collapse. [Continue reading…]

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