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Published: Tuesday, March 13, 2018 @ 3:40 PM
Updated: Tuesday, March 13, 2018 @ 3:40 PM
WASHINGTON — There are ongoing U.S. efforts to improve Syrian rebels' ability to detain what has become a steadily growing number of foreign fighters in Syria, the top U.S. commander in the Middle East told Congress on Tuesday.
Army Gen. Joseph Votel, the head of U.S. Central Command, told members of the Senate Armed Services Committee that the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces currently hold more than 400 detainees.
U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has been urging reluctant allies to address the escalating crisis by taking responsibility for their citizens who have been captured. During a meeting of allied defense ministers in Rome last month, Mattis pressed them to use diplomatic, legal and other means to take back citizens detained in Syria to make sure they don't get back on the battlefield. And the subject came up again during a meeting of NATO defense ministers that followed.
"We are working with our partners in the government here to work to get them back to their countries so they can be prosecuted in accordance with their laws," Votel told senators on Tuesday.
Asked by Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., if there is a "credible" long-term plan to detain the fighters inside Syria, Votel said the U.S. is working on that now.
So far, however, those entreaties to allies have been largely unsuccessful. Officials have said that only one or two detainees have been returned to their country.
As an example, British officials made it clear they did not want to accept the return of two notorious British members of an Islamic State cell who were commonly dubbed "The Beatles" and were known for beheading hostages. The two men — El Shafee Elsheikh and Alexanda Amon Kotey — were captured in early January in eastern Syria and are being held by the SDF.
Belgium officials have also spoken against the return of any detainees to their country. Belgium Foreign Minister Didier Reynders has suggested that detainees be tried where they were captured.
Most of the foreign fighters are from the region, including Iraq and Saudi Arabia. Hundreds of them have fought alongside IS in recent years as it seized large parts of Syria, raising concerns they'll commit terrorism at home if they return.
The U.S. is mainly advising and working with the SDF and with other non-government organizations and the United Nations to ensure detainees get appropriate care, including food, beds and shelter from the weather. But the U.S. military in Syria doesn't have the funding or ability to actually solve detention facility shortages.
As the number of detainees increase, U.S. officials worry that the SDF will lose either the ability or the will to continue to hold them. Doing nothing, Mattis warned the allies, is not an option.
Published: Wednesday, March 21, 2018 @ 8:01 AM
Reviewing the reaction of the Obama Administration to signs that Russia was trying to interfere in the 2016 election campaign, Senators on Wednesday expressed frustration at the refusal of the Obama and Trump Administrations to publicly reveal the names of at least 21 states targeted by Russian cyber attackers in 2016, arguing there is no reason to keep that information from the American people.
“America has to know what’s wrong,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA). “And if there are states that have been attacked, America should know that.”
In a hearing of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said states which were victimized prefer to remain anonymous, giving no hint that the identities of those states would be revealed any time soon.
“The 21 states themselves have been notified,” said Nielsen.
“But people have to know,” Feinstein countered.
Feinstein also pressed former Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, who defended efforts by the Obama Administration to both warn states – and warn the public about the Russian election threat.
“Senator, the American people were told,” Johnson said.
“Not sufficiently in any way, shape, or form,” Feinstein replied.
Johnson acknowledged that an early October 2016 warning about Russian actions – issued both by DHS and the broader U.S. Intelligence Community – did not get the press traction that he thought it deserved, mainly due to other breaking news about the campaign for President on that day.
“It was below the fold news, the next day, because of the release of the Access Hollywood video the same day,” Johnson said, referring to the tape of President Donald Trump in which he bragged about how he treated women, a revelation that roiled the 2016 campaign for the next several days.
At the hearing, Johnson did not mention what else was released on the same day – as just minutes after the Access Hollywood tape was made public, Wikileaks made the first release of hacked emails from John Podesta, a top aide to Hillary Clinton – all of that combining to overwhelm the U.S. government warning about Russian actions.
In hindsight, members of both parties said it was very obvious that – at the time – Russia was actively trying to cause trouble in the 2016 elections.
“Russian government actors scanned an estimated 21 states, and attempted to gain access to a handful of those,” said Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC), the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee.
“In at least one case, they were successful in penetrating a voter registration database,” Burr added.
Burr said his panel’s investigation showed that DHS and the FBI in 2016 did alert states of the Russian threat, but in a “limited way,” which resulted in most states not treating the information as an imminent threat.
Published: Wednesday, March 21, 2018 @ 4:04 AM
While the calendar may say it is spring, another winter storm threatened the East Coast on Wednesday, prompting the federal government to close down offices in the Washington, D.C. area, and canceling public events for President Donald Trump at the White House.
While there was little snow on the ground as the sun came up on Wednesday, forecasters were warning of big snow totals from the nation’s capital, up the I-95 corridor through Pennsylvania and New Jersey.
But as the morning commute continued, there was little evidence in some spots of that storm.
“Total accumulation so far 1” of Salt,” tweeted Rep. Billy Long (R-MO), as he documented empty streets on his commute to the U.S. Capitol, as lawmakers from the heartland subtly mocked the snow scare.
The biggest snowfall totals seemed to be to north of the Washington area, up near the Mason-Dixon line along the Maryland and Pennsylvania border, where as much as two feet of snow could fall.
But federal officials did not take any chances, as they closed government offices on Wednesday.
Despite the weather threat, Congress was in session today, though some committees had scrapped hearings set for Wednesday morning, worried about the snow.
Both the House and Senate were still going to be in session, as lawmakers were trying to finish a giant funding bill, facing a Friday night shutdown deadline.
At the White House, it was a snow day as well – even without any snow on the ground in the morning – as the President erred on the side of caution, and canceled two events, including a Cabinet meeting.
Published: Tuesday, March 20, 2018 @ 7:33 PM
Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, said today that it “would be a big mistake” for President Donald Trump to fire Independent Counsel Robert Mueller, who is investigating Russian officials trying to influence the 2016 election and whether the Trump campaign had any ties to those officials.
“I’ve said all along it would be a mistake to do so,” Portman told reporters on a conference call. “I think you have to let Mueller do his work. The American people deserve an answer.”
Portman’s comments follow those of Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who was quoted Tuesday as saying firing Mueller would “probably” be an impeachable offense. Graham had earlier said a Mueller firing would be “the beginning of the end” of the Trump presidency.
Portman said the intelligence community “has determined there was meddling in our election and we need to know more about it.”
Published: Tuesday, March 20, 2018 @ 9:22 AM
Issuing the first report in the review of Russian interference in the 2016 elections, members of the Senate Intelligence Committee said Tuesday that a range of stepped up election security measures must be taken by local, state, and federal officials to address a series of gaps, which lawmakers in both parties say Moscow was obviously trying to exploit.
“It is clear the Russian government was looking for the vulnerabilities in our election system,” said Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC), the chairman of the Intelligence panel, which has been working for over a year to uncoil what cyber attacks Moscow was engaging in during the 2016 campaign for President.
“Russia attempted to penetrate 21 states; we know they were successful in penetrating at least one voter database,” Burr added at a bipartisan news conference on Capitol Hill.
The panel issued a two page summary of what Senators say should be changed, ranging from giving grants to states to help secure their election systems, and pushing states to replaced outdated voting machines, and ensure that such vote counting equipment is not connected to the internet .
While Burr again stressed that there was “no evidence that any vote was changed,” he made clear that the bottom line of the investigation shows Russia was a bad actor in 2016.
“Russia was trying to undermine the confidence in our election system,” Burr added.
“The Russians were relentless in trying to meddle in the 2016 elections,” said Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME), as she said Senators in both parties agree that Moscow is trying to do the same thing in 2018 in the United States, and in other Western democracies as well.
“We may never know the full extent of the Russian malicious attacks,” Collins added.
One idea suggested by committee members is for states to go back to paper ballots in the future, to insure that overseas actors can’t hack their way into the voting process.
The panel will hold a hearing on Wednesday to go over these findings and recommendations related to election security, as Burr and other Senators stressed that their overall review of Russia’s 2016 election meddling continues.
The news conference demonstrated the difference between the investigations into Russian interference in the House and Senate, as Senators of both parties joined together, while over in the House, the two sides have been issuing dueling memos and reports.