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SitRep: Comey Saga Just Beginning; Flynn Subpoenaed; Turks Warn Washington to Stay Clear of Kurds

SitRep: Comey Saga Just Beginning; Flynn Subpoenaed; Turks Warn Washington to Stay Clear of Kurds

 

With Adam Rawnsley

Comey fallout just beginning. Several days before he was fired as Director of the FBI, James Comey asked the Justice Department to provide more prosecutors and other resources to push forward with the bureau’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.

He made the request to deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein, who would later be asked by President Trump to write a memo ultimately used to justify Comey’s startling dismissal on Tuesday. It’s unclear what effect Comey’s dismissal will have on the investigation into Russian meddling in U.S. politics, but two separate congressional inquiries — highly reliant on the bureau’s help — now grind along into an uncertain future.

Inside view. A picture is emerging of a testy relationship between Trump and Comey that played out behind closed doors, featuring an increasingly angry and frustrated president, confused why the investigations wouldn’t just go away.

After Trump accused president Obama in March of wiretapping him, Comey reportedly told colleagues that Trump was “outside the realm of normal,” even “crazy,’” the New York Times reports. “For his part, Mr. Trump fumed when Mr. Comey publicly dismissed the sensational wiretapping claim. In the weeks that followed, he grew angrier and began talking about firing Mr. Comey. After stewing last weekend while watching Sunday talk shows at his New Jersey golf resort, Mr. Trump decided it was time. There was ‘something wrong with’ Mr. Comey, he told aides.”

According to the Wall Street Journal, “Mr. Comey started receiving daily instead of weekly updates on the investigation, beginning at least three weeks ago…Mr. Comey was concerned by information showing possible evidence of collusion, according to these people.”

Rod Rosenstein, the mystery man behind Comey firing. FP’s Elias Groll takes a look at the deputy attorney general, who has worked for both Republican and Democratic presidents. “Former Justice Department officials are now puzzling over how a man they describe as a consummate professional appears to have allowed himself to be used by the Trump White House to oust the FBI director.” In interviews with Foreign Policy on Wednesday, Rosenstein’s former colleagues — all of whom insisted on anonymity — wondered how a man they admired for his integrity could emerge at the center of the controversy.

The Washington Post reports that Rosenstein “threatened to resign after the narrative emerging from the White House on Tuesday evening cast him as a prime mover of the decision to fire Comey and that the president acted only on his recommendation,”  FP’s Dan De Luce lays out some of the most important questions that Comey’s firing raises.

And of course, all this was happening while Trump smiled for journalists from a Kremlin-backed news agency in the Oval Office. On Wednesday, it was all smiles as he welcomed the Russian foreign minister, and the Russian ambassador former national security adviser Michael Flynn was fired for having lied about speaking with. The images of the three men — and the absence of the White House press corps which was kept out of the meeting in favor of Kremlin photographers — provided unwelcome optics for the White House that the worst time possible.

Flynn under fire. Flynn was subpoenaed by the Senate Intelligence Committee on Wednesday, in an effort to obtain documents the panel feels are critical to its investigation of Russian influence on members of the Trump campaign. The committee had originally requested Flynn hand over the documents on April 28, but he refused unless he was offered immunity. The committee declined, and slapped him with a subpoena instead.

On the docket. Don’t forget, Acting FBI director Andrew McCabe and other top U.S. intelligence officials are scheduled to testify before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Thursday in a long-scheduled hearing on world wide threats.

Bad blood. Although Turkish officials have said little publicly over the White House’s decision to beginning arming and equipping Kurdish fighters in Syria, what they have said has not instilled confidence that the relationship between Washington and Ankara is in a good place. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is due to meet Trump in Washington next week, and he said Wednesday he hopes Washington reconsiders its plan by time he arrives.

That’s not likely. U.S. military commanders have said for months that the Kurds are the only viable military option for taking the Islamic State’s stronghold of Raqqa. On Wednesday, Turkish prime minister Binali Yildirim warned that arming the Kurds could have “consequences” for the United States and a “negative result.”

Turkish officials have reportedly warned American national security officials that they plan to continue air strikes on U.S.-backed Kurds in Syria, potentially putting American forces at risk. The message was delivered during meetings in Washington this week, according to the Washington Post. We heard similar reports from people familiar with the talks, including that Turkish officials told their American counterparts that U.S. military forces could inadvertently be killed or injured in the strikes if they continued to advise and assist the Kurds.

Trying. In an apparent bid to calm nerves, Col. John Dorrian, spokesman for the U.S.-led anti-Islamic State coalition, tweeted out an ambitious promise for the U.S. arms program, claiming that “every single one of these weapons that will be provided to our partner forces will be accounted for and pointed at #ISIS.”

U.S. and Turkey fusion cell. “The U.S. is beefing up joint intelligence efforts with Turkey to help that government better target terrorists in the region, according to U.S. officials, in an apparent bid to alleviate Turkish anxieties as the Pentagon implements a plan to arm Kurdish forces operating inside Syria,” the Wall Street Journal reports. “The U.S. is increasing the capabilities of what is known as an “intelligence fusion center” in Ankara to help Turkish officials better identify and track the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, a network that both the U.S. and Turkey have designated a terrorist group.”

Beneath the waves. Senators from both sides of the aisle wrote to president Trump on Wednesday urging him to take a tougher line with Beijing in the South China Sea, calling for more U.S. naval patrols to uphold navigation rights in the disputed waterway, writes FP’s Dan De Luce.

“The appeal, backed by three Republicans and four Democrats, reflects growing concern in Congress that the Trump administration could be ceding strategic ground to China as it seeks assistance from Beijing to pressure North Korea over its nuclear weapons program.

“The letter obtained by Foreign Policy expresses concern that the United States had not carried out patrols upholding “freedom of navigation” in the strategic South China Sea since October 2016. Last year, Pentagon officials privately complained that the Obama administration limited its ability to patrol the disputed waters; Secretary of State Rex Tillerson initially promised a much tougher line against Chinese antics in the South China Sea, but none has yet materialized.”

Trump’s erratic foreign policy pronouncements and increasing support for Beijing has unnerved some allies in the region, the New York Times says.

More fusion. The CIA announced on Wednesday it would be creating a specialized Korea Mission Center, designed to bring together all region experts to combat the “nuclear and ballistic threat posed by North Korea,” according to a press release. The CIA declined to comment who would lead the new center, besides noting it would be a “veteran CIA operations officer.” Newly minted CIA Director Mike Pompeo praised the development as an opportunity for the CIA to “more purposefully integrate and direct” its experts and resources in the area. Meanwhile, President Donald Trump also had a phone call with newly elected South Korean President Moon Jae-In on Wednesday, who has expressed interest in opening dialogue with North Korea—a potential area of conflict with the U.S. Jae-In accepted an invitation to visit Washington in the near future. — Jenna McLaughlin

Welcome to SitRep. Send any tips, thoughts or national security events to paul.mcleary@foreignpolicy.com or via Twitter: @paulmcleary or @arawnsley.

New face at USAID. President Trump has nominated Mark Green, a former U.S. ambassador and congressman, to lead the United States Agency for International Development. Now would be a good time to give FP’s recent report about plans to drastically slash foreign aid — and USAID in particular — for some background on what’s likely to happen at the department.

SOF. American special operations forces are working with Arab militants based southern Syria to take on the Islamic State. Buzzfeed spoke to Mohannad Ahmed al-Tallaa, the commander of the rebel group Maghaweir Al-Thowra fighting alongside American commandos, who said American troops have occasionally fought on the front lines, in addition to helping plan offensives and call in airstrikes. The special operators’ goal is to eventually take on Islamic State forces in Syria’s remote desert governorate of Deir Ezzor, where members of the terrorist group have fled as U.S.-backed forces advance in nearby Raqqa.

Libya. Satellite imagery shows American-made turboprop airplanes in use at a covert United Arab Emirates base inside Libya, Military Times reports. Iomax’s CEO tells the news outlet that the imagery shows their Archangel planes but that the U.S. company hasn’t sold any aircraft to Libyan forces. The plane can be used in a light strike role or for carrying out intelligence, reconnaissance, and surveillance operations and made an appearance at the IDEX 2017 defense exhibition in the UAE. Emirati military officials have reportedly been supporting forces loyal to Libyan warlord Khalifa Haftar against the internationally-recognized government in Libya.

Banned in the USA. The laptop ban: it’s not just for flights from the Middle East anymore. European officials tell the Daily Beast that the Department of Homeland Security is planning to extend the ban on laptops in carry-on luggage to flights from Europe to America. Homeland security officials say the ban isn’t final quite yet, but remains under consideration in the wake of reports that jihadist terrorist have been planning to sneak. The department initially banned laptops in aircraft cabins only on flights from the Middle East and North Africa with the U.K. following in its footsteps.   

Airspace. A Jordanian F-16 shot down a drone that crossed into its airspace from Syria on Wednesday. It’s unclear yet what kind of drone was involved in the incident or where it came from but Agence France Presse reports that authorities are examining the wreckage found in Jordan’s Mafraq province. Syria’s civil war has yielded a number of similar incidents over the years, including an Iranian drone which crossed into Turkish airspace in 2015 and a Russian drone which flew over Israel in August of 2016.
Jamming ’til the jam is through. The Navy’s EA-18 Growler electronic attack jets have been fighting a quiet battle against the Islamic State in the electromagnetic spectrum. Defense Tech hopped aboard the USS George H.W. Bush aircraft carrier and spoke to the Bush strike group’s commander Adm. Ken Whitesell. Whitesell says the Growlers have helped to jam the communications links of Islamic State drones, used to drop grenade-sized munitions on Iraqi and Syrian forces and provide intelligence to the terrorist group, as well as improvised explosive devices.