Secretary of State Shills for Muslim Brotherhood, Qatar

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (Photo: Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images)

Clarion Project, by Ryan Mauro and Martin Mawyer, July 25, 2017:

The Trump Administration still hasn’t designated the Muslim Brotherhood as a Foreign Terrorist Organization as it was expected to do. Designation falls under the purview of Secretary of State Tillerson, who has chosen the Muslim Brotherhood and its backers in Qatar and Turkey over their Arab rivals.

Tillerson recently signaled his opposition to designating the Muslim Brotherhood in mid-June. He only has negative things to say about the idea.

His main point is that the Brotherhood’s political parties have representatives in governments like those in Bahrain and Turkey. That is irrelevant. If it was such a problem, Bahrain itself wouldn’t have banned the Brotherhood and the U.S. wouldn’t be dealing with the Lebanese government that has Hezbollah in it, which is designated as a Foreign Terrorist Organization.

Tillerson also repeated the “non-violent” and “moderate” Muslim Brotherhood propaganda. He claimed that the Brotherhood’s political parties in governments “have become so by renouncing violence and terrorism.” That was false when the Obama Administration said it, and it is false now.

The disappointment in Tillerson’s position is made exponentially greater by the fact that now is an optimum time to designate the group.

The Arab world is putting unprecedented pressure on Qatar over its support of the Brotherhood and other jihadists in the Islamist swarm. Muslim foes of the Brotherhood are left wondering where the U.S.stands because Trump and Tillerson aren’t on the same page.

Counter-terrorism expert Patrick Poole goes so far as to assert that Tillerson is “sabotaging” Trump’s foreign policy and urges his departure from the administration.

While President Trump expressed his support for the Arab measures against Qatar and unequivocally described Qatar as a major terrorism-financier, Tillerson did the opposite. He described Qatar as “very reasonable” in its reaction to the Arabs’ pressure.

His spokesperson read a scripted statement accusing the Arab states of having ulterior motives, saying the U.S. is “mystified” by their complaints. The State Department even cast doubt on the credibility of the Arabs’ accusations, claiming that they haven’t provided supporting details. Qatar’s lavish sponsorship of terrorism and extremism is uncontestable.

As Poole documents, far from offering support for those Arab states opposing Qatar, Tillerson publicly made moves towards Qatar’s Turkish allies and increased criticism of Qatar’s Saudi adversaries. The Trump Administration also agreed to sell up to 36 fighter jets to Qatar right after the Arabs began their campaign.

Tillerson even signed a counter-terrorism agreement with Qatar, spitting in the faces of the Arab countries fed up with Qatar’s repeated breaking of its promises to change its behavior. Immediately after signing the deal, Qatar reiterated its firm commitment to Hamas (and therefore, the broader Muslim Brotherhoodorganization of which it is an official branch).

Tillerson’s Ties to Qatar

People are inevitably influenced by those they surround themselves with, especially if that interaction is lucrative. Perhaps Tillerson’s favoring of Qatar has something to do with the close relationship he had with the Qatari government as a businessman with ExxonMobil, which has a decades-long association with the rulers.

ExxonMobil was a founding member of the U.S.-Qatar Business Council in 1996, an entity created by the Qatari regime. Tillerson was a senior official at the time. Another listed founding member is Al-Jazeera, the jihadist-friendly propaganda network run by Qatar and the Brotherhood. One of the Arab states’ top demands is the closure of the network headquartered in Doha.

After becoming chairman and CEO of ExxonMobil, Tillerson became a member of the U.S.-Qatar Business Council’s advisory board. He apparently held this position up until when he became Secretary of State, as his name is still listed with that title on the website.

The Vice President of ExxonMobil Production’s name is currently listed as a member of the Council’s board of directors. Al-Jazeera officials also appear on the advisory board and board of directors.

The organization’s website says that the U.S.-Qatar Business Council “played a major role in the formation of Qatar Foundation International (U.S.-based).” The Qatar Foundation headquartered in Doha is a major promoter of Islamist extremism, particularly the Muslim Brotherhood, including Islamists in America.

When the Arab campaign against Qatar began, the Qataris immediately began utilizing their contacts to try to win the State Department over. It deployed its lobbyists in America and they had leverage: The West’s three biggest energy companies, including ExxonMobil, were trying to strike a deal with the Qatari government for expanding liquified natural gas production.

But Qatar isn’t the only country working aggressively to influence U.S. foreign policy in a direction favorable to the Muslim Brotherhood. Turkey’s government is also leading the Islamist charge.

Tillerson’s Ties to Turkey

ExxonMobil is a member of the U.S.-Turkish Business Council. The chairman is Ekin Alptekin, the very same Turkish businessman at the center of the controversy with President Trump’s former National Security Adviser, General Michael Flynn.

Alptekin’s company had a $600,000 contract with Flynn to promote the Erdogan government’s interests. Flynn’s firm registered as a lobbyist but did not register as a foreign agent. The Justice Department’s National Security Division began an investigation last November. Flynn registered as a foreign agent of Turkey after he was fired and replaced by General H.R. McMaster.

We do not currently know of direct dealings between Tillerson and Alptekin, but ExxonMobil’s involvement in the U.S.-Turkish Business Council highlights how his prior relationship with the Turkish government may influence his behavior.

At a time when Erdogan has few defenders, the Islamist dictator finds a supporter in Tillerson.

On July 9, Tillerson traveled to Istanbul to receive an award from the World Petroleum Congress. There, he heaped praise upon those who defended Erdogan against a coup attempt last year, going so far as to describe the Islamist government as a democracy. He said:

“Nearly a year ago, the Turkish people – brave men and women – stood up against coup plotters and defended their democracy. I take this moment to recognize their courage and honor the victims of the events of July 15, 2016. It was on that day that the Turkish people exercised their rights under the Turkish constitution, defended their place in a prosperous Turkey, and we remember those who were injured or died in that event.”

Tillerson doesn’t defend Erdogan in all circumstances, as he did condemn the Turkish security personnel who attacked protesters in Washington D.C. in May. But that’s not exactly a bold stand; it’s something that any public official would condemn.

When it comes to the tough issues, Tillerson has sided with Qatar and Turkey, even when it contradicts the commander-in-chief who picked him for secretary of state.

On designating the Muslim Brotherhood, Tillerson sides with Qatar and Turkey

When the Arab states piled unprecedented pressure on Qatar for its sponsorship of terrorism and extremism including the Brotherhood and Hamas, Tillerson sided with Qatar and Turkey.

When it comes to last year’s coup in Turkey, Tillerson sided unequivocally with Erdogan’s Islamist dictatorship. He didn’t even necessarily have to talk about it during his visit to Istanbul. He chose to.

When it comes to the Kurds, our best allies in fighting ISIS, Tillerson’s State Department sided with Turkey in criticizing the Iraqi Kurds’ referendum on independent statehood. It also implied opposition to Kurdish independence, reacting to the referendum with a statement in support of a “united” and “federal” Iraq.

Political analysts always say that Trump was elected because people wanted change from an outsider. Tillerson is not bringing change. When it comes to Islamism, it’s the same-old same-old. Possibly worse.

Also see:

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U.S. Agency Promoting Trade With Iran Despite Trump Opposition

Pistachio trees at a field that farmers left behind due to the lack of water / Getty Images

Trump agencies continue to pursue policies created by Obama admin

Washington Free Beacon, by Adam Kredo, July 24, 2017:

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is promoting increased trade with Iran, despite clear opposition to this policy by the Trump White House, according to multiple sources who described the agency’s behavior as rogue and part of a lingering effort by the former Obama administration to promote international trade with the Islamic Republic.

A July report released by USDA praises the Obama administration’s efforts to open trade with Iran following the landmark nuclear agreement that dropped major sanctions on the Islamic Republic. The report contradicts White House policy on Iran, which has taken an increasingly hardline against increased relations with Iran under President Donald Trump.

The report is being viewed by administration insiders and regional experts as the product of efforts by the former Obama administration to promote positive propaganda about Iran in a bid to boost support for the Iran deal.

These sources viewed the report as a sign that Trump administration agencies, including USDA and even the State Department, are taking increasingly rogue action contradicting official White House policy on a range of key issues.

“White House National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster should call his office,” according to Michael Rubin, a former Pentagon adviser and expert on rogue regimes. “A key component of his job—and one that his predecessors let slide—is to coordinate policy across departments. Alas, it seems that the USDA wants to pursue an independent foreign policy, one that is detrimental to broader U.S. national interests.”

The USDA report, which touts renewed prospects for trade between the United States and Iran in light of the Iran deal, outlines “the potential for new opportunities for U.S. producers in the long run.”

The report further touts the Iran deal as an opportunity to help Iran engage with international markets, including those in the United States, to sell products such as pistachios and caviar.

“The lifting of the U.S. import ban on Iranian agricultural products, including pistachios and caviar, [represents] a large new market for Iran’s most valuable export crops,” according to the USDA report. “Arguably as important, however, was the removal of certain U.S. ‘secondary sanctions,’ penalties levied on foreign persons and companies seeking to do business in Iran, particularly in its finance, banking, insurance, and energy sectors.”

“This significant change allows Iran to attract foreign investment, import equipment, and adopt new technologies, all of which bear on Iran’s agricultural production and consumption,” according to the report.

The report further claims that the United States could face competition from Iran in regards to the pistachio market and urges the American market to brace for such a scenario.

“One example of the JCPOA’s [Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action] possible effect on U.S. producers relates to pistachios,” the report states. “With relaxed import restrictions from Iran, U.S. producers potentially face new competition from the world’s largest pistachio producer and second largest pistachio exporter. Decades of sanctions and trade restrictions have pushed Iran out of the large U.S. and European markets, but news reports have suggested that Iranian pistachio imports could resurge.”

One veteran Iran analyst who is in regular contact with the White House described the report as propaganda meant to falsely promote Iranian moderation and the benefits of legitimizing the regime.

“As with Obamacare, the Obama administration conscripted the entire federal government to propagandize on behalf of the Iran deal,” the source said. “The intelligence community produced politicized reports falsely hinting at Iran moderation. The State Department produced reports saying that the Iran deal was working. The Treasury department dismantled its anti-proliferation infrastructure and then declared it couldn’t find anyone to sanction for proliferation.”

“So it’s not surprising the Agriculture Department was tasked with producing pro-deal propaganda about how the deal would benefit Americans,” the source added. “What’s surprising is that the Trump administration hasn’t managed to put a stop to that nonsense.”

Saeed Ghasseminejad, an Iran expert at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said the report contradicts efforts by the White House and Congress to increase pressure on Iran as a result of its illicit ballistic missile program and ongoing support for terrorism.

“The White House and Congress seek to put pressure on the mullahs in Tehran, at the same time we see that other parts of the U.S. government are endorsing and recommending policies which are not in line with the White House and Congress’ goal,” Ghasseminejad said. “The Islamic Republic of Iran is a strategic enemy of the United States; unfortunately many in DC prefer to forget this basic point.”

USDA did not respond to multiple requests for comment on the report’s origins and who authorized its production.

No, Efforts To Designate The Muslim Brotherhood Aren’t Abandoned

A diverse range of voices favors Washington putting the squeeze on the Muslim Brotherhood, despite debates about to how to move forward effectively.

The Federalist, by Kyle Shideler, May 15, 2017:

If we are to believe media reports, the Trump administration has all but abandoned efforts to designate the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization. While Brookings scholar Shadi Hamid trumpeted that “American experts who study the Muslim Brotherhood unanimously oppose their designation,” a wide range of opinion on the Islamist group remains, both inside and outside the Beltway.

In fact, a diverse range of voices favors Washington puting the squeeze on the Muslim Brotherhood, even if there are debates about to how to move forward in the most effective manner. Former Ambassador Dennis Ross, co-author of a leading work on the Brotherhood’s Palestinian branch, the terrorist group Hamas, recently wrote a stinging article targeting the tiny gulf state of Qatar for its role in financing the group. Ross notes,

Few countries have done more to promote the Muslim Brotherhood, including its Palestinian offshoot Hamas, than Qatar. The actions of the Muslim Brotherhood may vary from country to country, but it rationalizes attacks against American forces and interests, rejects the very concept of peace with Israel, and promotes religious intolerance.

Just so. While Ross doesn’t explicitly call for designating the group as a terrorist organization, he does poke holes in the view—prevalent during the Obama administration—that the Brotherhood represents a bulwark against Islamic terrorism rather than a network of support for it. That flawed approach has been the basis for much of the immense bureaucratic opposition from both the Central Intelligence Agency and State Department to designating the Brotherhood.

We’re Already Halfway There

Soon after Trump’s victory late last year, State Department and CIA memos opposing designation were leaked to sympathetic media, and fed into a fierce public relations campaign the Brotherhood funded abroad. An echo chamber of validators amplified these efforts, using self-proclaimed Islamist and counterterror experts whose think tanks receive lavish funding from Gulf States like Qatar.

Yet designating the Brotherhood enjoys a base of broad support among Republicans, from conservatives like Sen. Ted Cruz to traditional centrists likes Utah’s Sen. Orrin Hatch, and even a handful of Democrats. Some foreign governments have also supported a designation, including the United Arab Emirates and Egypt.

Indeed, elements of the Muslim Brotherhood have already been designated. The effort began in 1993, when President Bill Clinton designated its Palestinian branch—better known as Hamas—as a Foreign Terrorist Organization. Then, almost immediately following 9/11, U.S. counterterrorism efforts against the Muslim Brotherhood began in earnest. By the end of President Bush’s second term, numerous Brotherhood charities and organizations, both foreign and domestic, had been designated, and others criminally prosecuted for terrorism activity.

Additionally, a number of Brotherhood leaders were personally designated, including Yemeni Brotherhood leader Abdul Majeed Al-Zindani and one of the leaders of the International Muslim Brotherhood organization, Youssef Nada. Most of these designations took place without invoking the Brotherhood’s name, but they were still intentional blows to the group’s terror support network. While the Obama administration reversed some of these designations, others remain.

What the Trump Administration Should Do

Any effective policy to combat the Muslim Brotherhood would involve freeing the Treasury Department to once against begin designating and sanctioning the Muslim Brothers and their various front organizations and branches for terrorism finance and their other illegal activities.

This step can be taken as soon as key nominees are confirmed, a process that Democratic Senators have unfortunately slowed to a crawl. Just this week, Sen. Ron Wyden announced he would block the nomination of Sigal Mandelker to be undersecretary of the Treasury for terrorism and financial intelligence.

In addition to Treasury enforcement action, knowledgeable federal law enforcement officers within the government recognize the nature and threat of the Muslim Brotherhood. These officers investigated Muslim Brotherhood-related cases during the Bush administration, and they understand the role the Muslim Brotherhood plays in terrorism and terror finance.

This includes agents who have dedicated nearly a lifetime of federal service to investigating the Brotherhood’s terror connections. Unfortunately, the Obama administration broke up the taskforce that won key counterterrorism convictions against Brotherhood leaders, meaning some of America’s best experts on the Muslim Brotherhood have been relegated to other tasks. Restoring this taskforce for federal law enforcement is a necessary step, and could be accomplished by the Trump Department of Justice with a modicum of effort.

Perhaps most importantly, the public debate around designating the Muslim Brotherhood deserves transparency. A tranche of Brotherhood documents federal law enforcement captured, while reportedly not classified, have not been made available to the general public. They should be released immediately.

Additionally, the nature of the U.S. government’s policy towards Islamist movements like the Muslim Brotherhood over the past decade deserves clarification. Presidential Study Directive-11, which reportedly deals with U.S. policy towards Islamist movements in the Middle East, and its associated documents should be declassified and made available for examination. Former House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence Chairman Pete Hokstra made this argument at a hearing in September last year.

As with the documents taken during the raid on Abbottabad when Osama bin Laden was killed, and the so-called “side deals” of the Iran deal, these documents also deserve to see light of day so a reasoned debate can begin over how the U.S. government should best respond to the threat the Muslim Brotherhood poses. These are all actions the Trump administration can begin immediately.

Finally, a role for Congress remains in this debate. Thanks to the leadership of Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart and Cruz, legislation on designation remains before both the House and Senate. Hearings on the Muslim Brotherhood, its role in supporting terrorism, and U.S. policy towards the group are all not only appropriate, but well overdue as a companion to White House efforts.

It’s inaccurate to say no support exists for designating the Muslim Brotherhood, but it is fair to say the window for a successful effort is closing fast. If the Trump administration intends to keep this important part of their broader platform to make America safe again, they need to move swiftly.

Kyle Shideler is the director of the Threat Information Office at the Center for Security Policy. Kyle has worked for several organizations involved with Middle East and terrorism policy since 2006. He is a contributing author to “Saudi Arabia and the Global Islamic Terrorist Network: America and the West’s Fatal Embrace,” and has written for numerous publications and briefed legislative aides, intelligence, and law enforcement officials and the general public on national security issues.

Sisi, Trump, and the Politics of Designating the Muslim Brotherhood

President Trump welcomes Egyptian President El-Sisi to the White House, April 3, 2017. (Reuters photo: Carlos Barria)

The group uses violent means when necessary to advance its Islamist agenda.

National Review, by Clifford Smith, April 6, 2017:

Hopes that the Trump administration will designate the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization have hit rough waters, with anonymous officials citing concerns about diplomatic blowback and frayed relationships with Muslims at home and abroad. The leaks come on the eve of a historic visit to Washington by Egyptian president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, a key Arab ally and devoted Muslim who is locked in a life-or-death struggle with the Brotherhood.

The irony is hard to miss, particularly given that Egypt and several other Arab countries have already designated the Brotherhood a terrorist organization.

Whatever the truth behind the leaks, they underscore that the inside-the-Beltway conventional wisdom — that the Brotherhood is “moderate” and so popular that designation would be seen as “a declaration of war against . . . Islam itself” — will not die as easily as many hoped.

This thinking is rooted in a failure to understand the difference between Islamists — a sizable but distinct minority of Muslims who adhere to a totalitarian religious ideology — and the moderate majority of Muslims, who are our friends and allies. President el-Sisi, who has publicly called out extremism to clerics in Egypt, understands this. After all, Egypt is not the only state in which the Brotherhood engaged in attempts to kill its way to power. It did the same in Syria in the early 1980s.

Despite the Brotherhood’s long history of bloodshed, claims that it is “moderate,” or opposes violence, are still prominent. While above-ground Brotherhood organizations use peaceful means when effective, they are “prepared to countenance violence . . . where gradualism is ineffective,” as a 2015 report by the British government noted with significant understatement.

Claims that designation will complicate U.S. relationships with certain Arab allies are overblown. While it is true that some allies, such as Jordan, have Muslim Brotherhood–affiliated parties represented in their parliaments, this is easy enough to finesse. Members of Hezbollah, a U.S.-designated terrorist organization, have long served in Lebanon’s parliament, but American diplomats manage to avoid contact with them and still do business with the Lebanese.

Moreover, failure to designate the Brotherhood complicates some alliances. The Egyptian public has grown deeply suspicious of the U.S. government precisely because under Obama the U.S. came to be seen as overly sympathetic to the Brotherhood. When Senator Ted Cruz introduced the Muslim Brotherhood Terror Designation Act, many Egyptians saw it as a sign the U.S. may be waking from its long slumber. A tweet introducing the bill was the subject of a segment by popular Egyptian talk-show host Amr Adib and was retweeted 17,000+ times.

Domestically, in the wake of Trump’s admittedly troubling comments suggesting a “Muslim ban” during his presidential campaign last year, some fear that designation will fuel anti-Muslim bigotry and pave the way for “a legal assault on the institutions of American Muslim life.” After all, several organizations claiming to represent U.S. Muslims, particularly the Council on American–Islamic Relations (CAIR), have deep Muslim Brotherhood ties.

But groups such as CAIR are hardly “institutions of American Muslim life” — they’re just pretending to be. A 2011 Gallup poll found support for CAIR among U.S. Muslims to be just under 12 percent. Britain’s inquiry into the Brotherhood found that its activists in the U.K. “appear to be unable to generate any grassroots support.”

Frankly, however, if public support for CAIR were higher, that would be all the more reason to be concerned. Notwithstanding its carefully crafted public image, CAIR was named an unindicted co-conspirator in the 2007–09 Holy Land Foundation terror-finance case, and was blacklisted by the FBI as a result. Unfortunately, the Obama administration failed to aggressively continue an FBI investigation into CAIR after it conspired to fund terrorist-designated organization Hamas, the Palestinian wing of the Muslim Brotherhood. Indeed, the United Arab Emirates has declared CAIR itself a terrorist organization.

Trump’s rhetorical excesses cannot be understood without recalling the Obama administration’s refusal to name the problem. Using euphemisms such as “violent extremism” and feigning puzzlement as to the motives of obvious jihadists made the administration’s rhetoric concerning terrorism a national joke. In both the U.S. and Europe, when elites insist that voters must believe them, rather than their own “lying eyes,” the voters turn sharply in the opposite direction. The cure for Trump’s rhetorical excesses is increased security, not denial.

Trump laid out a number of smart proposals on radical Islam during his campaign. His administration should now use President el-Sisi’s visit to move forward with these ideas. In particular, it should follow up designation of the Brotherhood with the formation of a congressionally authorized commission on radical Islam tasked with developing a strategy for winning the war against Islamic extremists and explaining the threat of Islamism to the American people. Both are badly needed. Wrongheaded conventional wisdom won’t keep Americans, or our Muslim allies, safe.

— Clifford Smith is the Washington project director for the Middle East Forum.

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Did the Obama Administration’s Abuse of Foreign Intelligence start before Trump?

One clue: The Russia story is a replay of how the former White House smeared pro-Israel activists in the lead-up to the Iran Deal

Tablet Magazine, by  Lee Smith, April 5, 2017:

The accusation that the Obama administration used information gleaned from classified foreign surveillance to smear and blackmail its political opponents at home has gained new traction in recent days, after reports that former National Security Adviser Susan Rice may have been rifling through classified transcripts for over a year that could have included information about Donald Trump and his associates. While using resources that are supposed to keep Americans safe from terrorism for other purposes may be a dereliction of duty, it is no more of a crime than spending all day on Twitter instead of doing your job. The crime here would be if she leaked the names of U.S. citizens to reporters. In the end, the seriousness of the accusation against Rice and other former administration officials who will be caught up in the “unmasking” scandal will rise or fall based on whether or not Donald Trump was actively engaged in a conspiracy to turn over the keys of the White House to the Kremlin. For true believers in the Trump-Kremlin conspiracy theories, the Obama “spying and lying” scandal isn’t a scandal at all; just public officials taking prudent steps to guard against an imminent threat to the republic.

But what if Donald Trump wasn’t the first or only target of an Obama White House campaign of spying and illegal leaks directed at domestic political opponents?

In a December 29, 2015 article, The Wall Street Journal described how the Obama administration had conducted surveillance on Israeli officials to understand how Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other Israeli officials, like Ambassador Ron Dermer, intended to fight the Iran Deal. The Journal reported that the targeting “also swept up the contents of some of their private conversations with U.S. lawmakers and American-Jewish groups.”

Despite this reporting, it seemed inconceivable at the time that—given myriad legal, ethical, political, and historical concerns, as well as strict National Security Agency protocols that protect the identity of American names caught in intercepts—the Obama White House would have actually spied on American citizens. In a December 31, 2016, Tablet article on the controversy, “Why the White House Wanted Congress to Think It Was Being Spied on By the NSA,” I argued that the Obama administration had merely used the appearance of spying on American lawmakers to corner opponents of the Iran Deal. Spying on U.S. citizens would be a clear abuse of the foreign-intelligence surveillance system. It would be a felony offense to leak the names of U.S. citizens to the press.

Increasingly, I believe that my conclusion in that piece was wrong. I believe the spying was real and that it was done not in an effort to keep the country safe from threats—but in order to help the White House fight their domestic political opponents.

“At some point, the administration weaponized the NSA’s legitimate monitoring of communications of foreign officials to stay one step ahead of domestic political opponents,” says a pro-Israel political operative who was deeply involved in the day-to-day fight over the Iran Deal. “The NSA’s collections of foreigners became a means of gathering real-time intelligence on Americans engaged in perfectly legitimate political activism—activism, due to the nature of the issue, that naturally involved conversations with foreigners. We began to notice the White House was responding immediately, sometimes within 24 hours, to specific conversations we were having. At first, we thought it was a coincidence being amplified by our own paranoia. After a while, it simply became our working assumption that we were being spied on.”

This is what systematic abuse of foreign-intelligence collection for domestic political purposes looks like: Intelligence collected on Americans, lawmakers, and figures in the pro-Israel community was fed back to the Obama White House as part of its political operations. The administration got the drop on its opponents by using classified information, which it then used to draw up its own game plan to block and freeze those on the other side. And—with the help of certain journalists whose stories (and thus careers) depend on high-level access—terrorize them.

Once you understand how this may have worked, it becomes easier to comprehend why and how we keep being fed daily treats of Trump’s nefarious Russia ties. The issue this time isn’t Israel, but Russia, yet the basic contours may very well be the same.

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Two inquiries now underway on Capitol Hill, conducted by the Senate intelligence committee and the House intelligence committee, may discover the extent to which Obama administration officials unmasked the identities of Trump team members caught in foreign-intelligence intercepts. What we know so far is that Obama administration officials unmasked the identity of one Trump team member, Michael Flynn, and leaked his name to the Washington Post’s David Ignatius.

“According to a senior U.S. government official,” Ignatius wrote in his Jan. 12 column, “Flynn phoned Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak several times on Dec. 29, the day the Obama administration announced the expulsion of 35 Russian officials as well as other measures in retaliation for the hacking. What did Flynn say, and did it undercut the U.S. sanctions?”

Nothing, the Times and the Post later reported. But exposing Flynn’s name in the intercept for political purposes was an abuse of the national-security apparatus, and leaking it to the press is a crime.

This is familiar territory. In spying on the representatives of the American people and members of the pro-Israel community, the Obama administration learned how far it could go in manipulating the foreign-intelligence surveillance apparatus for its own domestic political advantage. In both instances, the ostensible targets—Israel and Russia—were simply instruments used to go after the real targets at home.

In order to spy on U.S. congressmen before the Iran Deal vote, the Obama administration exploited a loophole, which is described in the original Journal article. The U.S. intelligence community is supposed to keep tabs on foreign officials, even those representing allies. Hence, everyone in Washington knows that Israeli Ambassador Ron Dermer is under surveillance. But it’s different for his American interlocutors, especially U.S. lawmakers, whose identities are, according to NSA protocol, supposed to be, at the very least, redacted. But the standard for collecting and disseminating “intercepted communications involving U.S. lawmakers” is much less strict if it is swept up through “foreign-foreign” intercepts, for instance between a foreign ambassador and his capital. Washington, i.e. the seat of the American government, is where foreign ambassadors are supposed to meet with American officials. The Obama administration turned an ancient diplomatic convention inside out—foreign ambassadors were so dangerous that meeting them signaled betrayal of your own country.

During the long and contentious lead-up to the Iran Deal the Israeli ambassador was regularly briefing senior officials in Jerusalem, including the prime minister, about the situation, including his meetings with American lawmakers and Jewish community leaders. The Obama administration would be less interested in what the Israelis were doing than in the actions of those who actually had the ability to block the deal—namely, Senate and House members. The administration then fed this information to members of the press, who were happy to relay thinly veiled anti-Semitic conceits by accusing deal opponents of dual loyalty and being in the pay of foreign interests.

It didn’t take much imagination for members of Congress to imagine their names being inserted in the Iran deal echo chamber’s boilerplate—that they were beholden to “donors” and “foreign lobbies.” What would happen if the White House leaked your phone call with the Israeli ambassador to a friendly reporter, and you were then profiled as betraying the interests of your constituents and the security of your nation to a foreign power? What if the fact of your phone call appeared under the byline of a famous columnist friendly to the Obama administration, say, in a major national publication?

To make its case for the Iran Deal, the Obama administration redefined America’s pro-Israel community as agents of Israel. They did something similar with Trump and the Russians—whereby every Russian with money was defined as an agent of the state. Where the Israeli ambassador once was poison, now the Russian ambassador is the kiss of death—a phone call with him led to Flynn’s departure from the White House and a meeting with him landed Attorney General Jeff Sessions in hot water.

Did Trump really have dealings with FSB officers? Thanks to the administration’s whisper campaigns, the facts don’t matter; that kind of contact is no longer needed to justify surveillance, whose spoils could then be weaponized and leaked. There are oligarchs who live in Trump Tower, and they all know Putin—ergo, talking to them is tantamount to dealing with the Russian state.

Yet there is one key difference between the two information operations that abused the foreign-intelligence surveillance apparatus for political purposes. The campaign to sell the Iran deal was waged while the Obama administration was in office. The campaign to tie down Trump with the false Russia narrative was put together as the Obama team was on its way out.

The intelligence gathered from Iran Deal surveillance was shared with the fewest people possible inside the administration. It was leaked to only a few top-shelf reporters, like the authors of The Wall Street Journal article, who showed how the administration exploited a loophole to spy on Congress. Congressmen and their staffs certainly noticed, as did the Jewish organizations that were being spied on. But the campaign was mostly conducted sotto voce, through whispers and leaks that made it clear what the price of opposition might be.

The reason the prior abuse of the foreign-intelligence surveillance apparatus is clear only now is because the Russia campaign has illuminated it. As The New York Times reported last month, the administration distributed the intelligence gathered on the Trump transition team widely throughout government agencies, after it had changed the rules on distributing intercepted communications. The point of distributing the information so widely was to “preserve it,” the administration and its friends in the press explained—“preserve” being a euphemism for “leak.” The Obama team seems not to have understood that in proliferating that material they have exposed themselves to risk, by creating a potential criminal trail that may expose systematic abuse of foreign-intelligence collection.

White House Officials Divided on Islam, ISIS, Israel and Iran

Gatestone Institute, by Soeren Kern, April 5, 2017:

  • The decision to select Army Lieutenant General Herbert Raymond “H.R.” McMaster to replace retired Lieutenant General Michael Flynn as national security advisor is setting into motion a cascade of other personnel decisions that, far from draining the swamp, appear to be perpetuating it.
  • Trump has decided to retain Yael Lempert, a controversial NSC staffer from the Obama administration. Analyst Lee Smith reported that, according to a former official in the Clinton administration, Lempert “is considered one of the harshest critics of Israel on the foreign policy far left.”
  • Sahar Nowrouzzadeh, who served as the NSC’s Iran director during the Obama administration, is now in charge of policy planning for Iran and the Persian Gulf at the Trump State Department. Nowrouzzadeh, whose main task at Obama’s NSC was to help broker the Iran Nuclear Deal, is a former employee of the National Iranian-American Council (NIAC), a lobbying group widely believed to be a front group for the Islamic dictatorship in Iran.
  • “The people who are handling key elements of those conflicts now are the same people who handled those areas under Obama, despite the results of the last election. No wonder the results look equally awful.” — Lee Smith, Middle East analyst.

The people U.S. President Donald J. Trump has chosen to lead his foreign policy team may complicate efforts to fulfill his inaugural pledge to eradicate “radical Islamic terrorism” “from the face of the Earth” — a Herculean task even under the best of circumstances.

An analysis of the political appointments to the different agencies within the U.S. national security apparatus shows that the key members of the president’s foreign policy team hold widely divergent views on the threat posed by radical Islam — and on the nature of Islam itself. They also disagree on approaches to Iran, the Arab-Israeli conflict, the European Union, Russia, globalism and other national security issues.

The policy disconnect is being exacerbated by the fact that dozens of key positions within the Pentagon, the State Department and other agencies remain unfilled. The result is that the administration has been relying on holdovers from the Obama administration to formulate and implement U.S. foreign policy.

Current foreign policy advisors can be roughly divided into several competing factions and ideological schisms: career staffers versus political appointees, civilian strategists versus military tacticians, Trump supporters versus Obama loyalists, politically correct consensus-seekers versus politically incorrect ideologues, New York moderates versus populist hardliners, Palestinian sympathizers versus advocates for Israel, proponents of the Iran deal versus supporters of an anti-Iran coalition — and those who believe that Islamism and radical Islamic terrorism derive from Islam itself versus those who insist that Islam is a religion of peace.

The winners of these various power struggles ultimately will determine the ideological direction of U.S. policy on a variety of national security issues, including the war on Islamic terror.

During his presidential campaign, voters were promised a radical shift in American foreign policy, and the consensus-driven foreign policy establishment in Washington was repeatedly blamed for making the world less stable and more dangerous.

Although much can change, the current incarnation of the national security team indicates that the administration’s foreign policy, especially toward the Middle East and the broader Islamic world, may end up being more similar than different to that of the Obama administration. Those hoping for a radical change to the politically correct status quo may be disappointed.

National Security Advisor

Among recent personnel decisions, arguably the most fateful has been to select Army Lieutenant General Herbert Raymond “H.R.” McMaster to replace retired Lieutenant General Michael Flynn as national security advisor. This change is setting into motion a cascade of other personnel decisions that, far from draining the swamp, appears to be perpetuating it.

Flynn, who resigned on February 13 after leaked intelligence reports alleged that he misrepresented his conversations with a Russian diplomat, has long argued that the West is in a civilizational clash with Islam, and that the war on terror must be expanded and intensified to reflect this reality.

By contrast, McMaster emphatically rejects the notion of a clash of civilizations. His statements on Islam are highly nuanced and not materially different from those of former presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush.

President Donald Trump appears with Lieutenant General Herbert Raymond “H.R.” McMaster, on February 20, 2017. (Image source: PBS News video screenshot)

Flynn, in a speech delivered at a synagogue in Stoughton, Massachusetts in August 2016, warned that the ultimate goal of radical Islam is world hegemony:

“We are facing another ‘ism,’ just like we faced Nazism, and fascism, and imperialism and communism. This is Islamism, it is a vicious cancer inside the body of 1.7 billion people on this planet and it has to be excised.”

That same month, Flynn addressed a Baptist Church in San Antonio, Texas:

“I don’t see Islam as a religion. I see it as a political ideology that will mask itself as a religion globally, and especially in the West, especially in the United States, because it can hide behind and protect itself by what we call freedom of religion.”

In Flynn’s book, “The Field of Fight: How We Can Win the Global War against Radical Islam and its Allies,” he warned:

“We’re in a world war against a messianic mass movement of evil people, most of them inspired by a totalitarian ideology: Radical Islam…. We’ve got to stop feeling the slightest bit guilty about calling them by name and identifying them as fanatical killers acting on behalf of a failed civilization.”

In an opinion article published by the New York Post in July 2016, Flynn wrote that America’s war against radical Islam is being run by political leaders who refuse to see the big picture:

“If our leaders were interested in winning [the war against radical Islam], they would have to design a strategy to destroy this global enemy. But they don’t see the global war. Instead, they timidly nibble around the edges of the battlefields from Africa to the Middle East, and act as if each fight, whether in Syria, Iraq, Nigeria, Libya or Afghanistan, can be peacefully resolved by diplomatic effort….

“No, we’re not going to talk our way out of this war, nor can we escape its horrors. Ask the people in San Bernardino or South Florida, or the relatives of the thousands killed on 9/11. We’re either going to win or lose. There is no other ‘solution.’

“I believe we can and must win. This war must be waged both militarily and politically; we have to destroy the enemy armies and combat enemy doctrines. Both are doable. On military battlefields, we have defeated radical Islamic forces every time we have seriously gone after them, from Iraq to Afghanistan. Their current strength is not a reflection of their ability to overwhelm our armed forces, but rather the consequence of our mistaken and untimely withdrawal after demolishing them….

“We have the wherewithal, but lack the will. That has to change. It’s hard to imagine it happening with our current leaders, but the next president will have to do it.”

McMaster, however, has openly repudiated Flynn’s — and Trump’s — views on Islam. He rejects any connection between terrorism and Islam, even though Islamic scripture clearly states that true Muslims are duty-bound to wage jihad on non-Muslims until the entire world is brought under the submission of Islam and Sharia law.

On February 23, during his first staff meeting as the newly minted national security advisor, McMaster reportedly urged National Security Council employees to avoid using the term “radical Islamic terrorism” because, according to McMaster, groups such as the Islamic State represent a “perversion of Islam” and are therefore “un-Islamic.” McMaster added that “he’s not on board” with using the term because it castigates “an entire religion” and may alienate Muslim allies in the Middle East.

Less than a week later, McMaster urged Trump to remove references to “radical Islamic terrorism” from the speech the president was to deliver to Congress on February 28. The president nevertheless prevailed. “We are also taking strong measures,” he said, “to protect our nation from radical Islamic terrorism.”

Long before becoming America’s leading advisor on national security matters, McMaster, who has a long history of service in Iraq and Afghanistan, consistently echoed the Obama administration’s rhetorical efforts to delink Islamic terrorism from Islamic doctrine.

In November 2016, during a speech to the Virginia Military Institute, McMaster said that the Islamic State “cynically uses a perverted interpretation of religion to incite hatred and justify horrific cruelty against innocents.”

In May 2016, during a conference at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, he said:

“Groups like the Islamic State use this irreligious ideology, this perverted interpretation of religion to justify violence. They depend on ignorance, and the ability to recruit vulnerable segments of populations to foment hatred, and then use that hatred to justify violence against innocents.”

In August 2014, when McMaster was the featured speaker for the President’s Lecture Series at the National Defense University, he reportedly declared: “The Islamic State is not Islamic.”

In 2010, McMaster enthusiastically endorsed a book entitled, “Militant Islamist Ideology: Understanding the Global Threat,” by U.S. Navy Commander Youssef H. Aboul-Enein and published by the Naval Institute Press. A review by analyst Youssef M. Ibrahim found its claims, “many of which the Obama administration followed to disastrous results, to be incorrect and problematic.”

Aboul-Enein’s central objective is to urge American policymakers to distinguish between militant Islamists such as members of the Islamic State and non-militant Islamists such as members of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Ibrahim counters: “In reality, all Islamists share the same ultimate goal of global Islamic hegemony. They differ in methodology — but not in their view of us as the enemy to be crushed.”

Ibrahim continues:

“Aboul-Enein also suggests that if an American soldier ever desecrates a Koran, U.S. leadership must not merely relieve him of duty, but offer ‘unconditional apologies,’ and emulate the words of Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Hammond, which Aboul-Enein quotes as exemplary: ‘I come before you [Muslims] seeking your forgiveness, in the most humble manner I look in your eyes today, and say please forgive me and my soldiers,’ followed by kissing a new Koran and ‘ceremoniously’ presenting it to Muslims.

McMaster’s endorsement of the book, which appears on the jacket cover, reads:

“Terrorist organizations use a narrow and irreligious ideology to recruit undereducated and disenfranchised people to their cause. Understanding terrorist ideology is the first and may also be the most important step in ensuring national and international security against the threat that these organizations pose.

“Youssef Aboul-Enein’s book is an excellent starting point in that connection. Militant Islamist Ideology deserves a wide readership among all those concerned with the problem of transnational terrorism, their ideology, and our efforts to combat those organizations that pose a serious threat to current and future generations of Muslims and non-Muslims alike.”

McMaster’s position on the nuclear deal with Iran remains unclear. If his views on Islam are any indication, McMaster, unlike Flynn, probably does not view Iran in ideological terms.

The president has described the “Iran Deal” as a “disaster” and “the worst deal ever negotiated.” On February 1, after Iran launched a ballistic missile, the White House signaled a tougher line on Tehran. Flynn said:

“President Trump has severely criticized the various agreements reached between Iran, the Obama administration as well as the United Nations as being weak and ineffective. Instead of being thankful to the United States in these agreements, Iran is now feeling emboldened. As of today, we are officially putting Iran on notice.”

Flynn’s ouster less than two weeks later was rumored to have been orchestrated by Obama confidants in order to preserve the Iran Deal. According to reporter Adam Kredo:

“The effort, said to include former Obama administration adviser Ben Rhodes — the architect of a separate White House effort to create what he described as a pro-Iran echo chamber — included a small task force of Obama loyalists who deluged media outlets with stories aimed at eroding Flynn’s credibility, multiple sources revealed.

“The operation primarily focused on discrediting Flynn, an opponent of the Iran nuclear deal, in order to handicap the Trump administration’s efforts to disclose secret details of the nuclear deal with Iran that had been long hidden by the Obama administration.”

Strategic Initiatives Group

McMaster’s views on Islam are also diametrically opposed to those held by Stephen K. Bannon, the administration’s chief political strategist. Bannon has long warned that the Judeo-Christian West is in a civilizational conflict with Islam.

On January 28, the president signed an executive order making Bannon a permanent invitee to all meetings of the National Security Council, and also making him a regular member of the so-called Principals Committee, the Cabinet-level senior interagency forum that is led by the national security advisor and decides foreign policy issues that do not go to the president. The executive order significantly increased Bannon’s influence and power in the White House decision-making process.

At the same time, Bannon and the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, have established the Strategic Initiatives Group, an internal White House think tank that some analysts believe will challenge policy advice coming from McMaster and the National Security Council.

The Strategic Initiatives Group, which has been described as a “shadow NSC,” is run by assistant to the president Christopher Liddell and White House chief of staff Reince Priebus, and includes deputy assistant to the president Sebastian Gorka, author of the book, “Defeating Jihad: The Winnable War.” Like Bannon, Gorka believes that “the global jihadi movement is a modern totalitarian ideology rooted in the doctrines and martial history of Islam.”

McMaster is rumored to be considering a reorganization of the White House foreign policy team that would give him more control. Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary, said that McMaster has full authority to organize his staff, but that any change in Bannon’s status must be approved by the president. Either way, conflict between McMaster and Bannon seems inevitable.

National Security Council

McMaster’s first personnel decision was to name Dina Powell to serve as Deputy National Security Advisor, the number two position on the National Security Council — and a post already filled by K.T. McFarland.

McFarland, a former official in the Reagan administration, has been a vocal critic of the Obama administration’s timidity in the face of radical Islam, which she has described as “the most virulent, lethal, apocalyptic death cult in history.” In an opinion article that was published in the wake of the jihadist attacks in Brussels on March 22, 2016, McFarland wrote:

“Global Islamist jihad is at war with all of Western civilization. President Obama and other Western leaders may not see it as a war, but the other side does. Left largely unchecked over the last seven years, radical Islam has exploded worldwide….

“We have been one step behind this enemy for years. We’re still tongue-tied by political correctness, while they’re setting off bombs at train stations, airports and community centers.

“We are losing this war. Our losses grow greater every day, while terrorists recruit off the images of the West’s most innocent and vulnerable fleeing in horror. The hour is already late to defeat this growing scourge. But if we are to defeat radical Islam, it will be only with a multifaceted, comprehensive strategy that calls on all the aspects of the national power of ourselves and our allies — like we summoned to defeat the Nazis in World War II or the Communists in the Cold War.”

McFarland, whose future at the NSC has been uncertain since Flynn resigned, reportedly has been offered the post of U.S. ambassador to Singapore.

Dina Habib Powell, 43, a former executive with Goldman Sachs, is the first Arab-American to join the Trump White House. She was born in Egypt and immigrated to the United States as a child with her Coptic Christian parents. Fluent in Arabic, she worked in the Bush administration, on public diplomacy to improve perceptions of America in the Arab world.

Powell is also said to be close to many Democrats, including some who have worked in the Obama administration. According to Politico, Powell has a strong personal relationship with Valerie Jarrett, one of the closest advisors to Barack Obama. Jarrett, who was born in Iran, and is widely rumored to be the architect of the Iran Nuclear Deal, reportedly has moved into Obama’s home in Washington, D.C. to lead a resistance movement against Trump’s efforts to reverse his predecessor’s foreign and domestic policies.

Powell’s ascendancy is tied to Trump’s daughter, Ivanka, who hired her to provide advice on politics in Washington. Powell has been described as “Ivanka Trump’s woman in the White House.”

Meanwhile, McMaster has tried to replace Ezra Watnick-Cohen, the NSC’s senior director for intelligence programs. Watnick-Cohen, another Flynn protégé, is a 30-year-old intelligence operative with the Defense Intelligence Agency who has reportedly fallen out of favor with some people at the Central Intelligence Agency. Politico reported that Cohen-Watnick and Flynn “saw eye to eye about the failings of the CIA human intelligence operations,” according to an operative. “The CIA saw him as a threat, so they tried to unseat him and replace him with an agency loyalist,” he said.

Cohen-Watnick appealed McMaster’s decision to Bannon and Kushner, both of whom brought the matter to Trump. The president eventually agreed that Cohen-Watnick should remain as the NSC’s intelligence director.

McMaster reportedly also wanted to replace Cohen-Watnick with Linda Weissgold, a longtime CIA official. During the Obama administration Weissgold served as director of the CIA’s Office of Terrorism Analysis. Journalist Michael Warren wrote:

“In her position at OTA, she was also involved directly in drafting the now infamous Benghazi talking points, which government officials revised heavily to include factually incorrect assessments that stated the attackers were prompted by protests. According to the House Select Committee on Benghazi’s report, Weissgold testified she had changed one such talking point to say that extremists in Benghazi with ties to al Qaeda had been involved in ‘protests’ in the Libyan city, despite the fact that no such protests occurred there on the day of the attack.”

The CIA also rejected a security clearance for Robin Townley, the NSC’s senior director for Africa and one of Flynn’s closest advisors. The denial of a request for so-called “Sensitive Compartmented Information” clearance forced Townley, a former Marine intelligence officer who had long maintained a top secret-level security clearance, out of his NSC post. The rejection was approved by Mike Pompeo, the new CIA director.

Flynn and his allies reportedly believed that the rejection was motivated by Townley’s skepticism of the intelligence community. “They believe this is a hit job from inside the CIA on Flynn and the people close to him,” said one source, who argued that some in the intelligence community felt threatened by Flynn and his allies. “Townley believes that the CIA doesn’t run the world,” the source said.

The Cohen-Watnick and Townley episodes have highlighted ongoing tensions between the CIA and Trump advisors who are skeptical of the agency. Flynn was said by some as waging “a jihad against the intelligence community” while others have pointed to Flynn’s ouster as an example of how the CIA is trying to undermine the Trump administration and retain its own autonomy.

At the same time, Trump has decided to retain Yael Lempert, a controversial NSC staffer from the Obama administration. Analyst Lee Smith reported that, according to a former official in the Clinton administration, Lempert “is considered one of the harshest critics of Israel on the foreign policy far left.” The source added:

“From her position on the Obama NSC, she helped manufacture crisis after crisis in a relentless effort to portray Israel negatively and diminish the breadth and depth of our alliance. Most Democrats in town know better than to let her manage Middle East affairs. It looks like the Trump administration has no idea who she is or how hostile she is to the U.S.-Israel relationship.”

Smith noted:

“This is the same Trump administration that said it was going to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem? Making big promises to Jewish voters during campaign season and then dumping them in the trash along with yesterday’s campaign lawn signs is old hat in Washington, though. And after eight years of Obama’s very public ministrations to his favorite ‘donors,’ Jewish votes are especially cheap — you can name Louis Farrakhan’s former spokesman as vice chairman of your party and the faithful will sigh with relief. So why should Trump bother?”

Smith also revealed that the Trump administration has retained Brett McGurk, the Obama administration’s special envoy to lead the campaign against the Islamic State. According to Smith:

“One of the main reasons Obama’s ISIS policy failed was because Sunni actors refused to engage in an intramural civil war whose spoils would go to the Iranians and their Shia allies. McGurk was the point man on this pro-Iran policy, famously arranging for Iran to get $400 million in cash delivered on wooden pallets to the IRGC in exchange for American hostages.

“Remember when the Trump administration promised to make public the secret agreements that Obama made with Iran? McGurk signed some of the secret documents, relieving sanctions on a key financial hub of Iran’s ballistic-missile program, and dropping charges against 21 Iranian operatives linked to terrorism. Notably, none of those documents has actually been made public. Maybe that’s because McGurk’s name is on them.”

State Department

Meanwhile, Sahar Nowrouzzadeh, who served as the NSC’s Iran director during the Obama administration, is now in charge of policy planning for Iran and the Persian Gulf at the Trump State Department. Nowrouzzadeh, whose main task at Obama’s NSC was to help broker the Iran Nuclear Deal, is a former employee of the National Iranian-American Council (NIAC), a lobbying group widely believed to be a front group for the Islamic dictatorship in Iran.

In an opinion article published by the Washington Examiner on March 16, Amir Basiri, an Iranian human rights activist wrote:

“Obama’s failed Iran policy is a clear testament to the damage that appeasement and rapprochement does to the Iranian people, Middle East nations, and U.S. interests. The ill that Nowrouzzadeh and her ilk have caused only underlines the necessity to drain the Iran appeasement swamp in the State Department, and to stand with the Iranian people for a change.”

Other notable holdovers from the Obama administration include:

  • Chris Backemeyer, who serves as deputy assistant secretary for Iranian affairs under Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. Backemeyer is now the highest-ranking official at the State Department for Iran policy. During the Obama administration, Backemeyer was tasked with persuading multinational corporations to do business with Iran.
  • Thomas A. Shannon, Jr., a career foreign service officer who serves as Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs. Shannon, the State Department’s fourth-ranking official, has warned that scrapping the Iran Deal would lead to a nuclear arms race in the Middle East. “Any effort to step away from the deal would reopen a Pandora’s box in that region that would be hard to close again,” he said. His statement indicates that Shannon could be expected to lead efforts to resist any attempts to renege or renegotiate the deal; critics of the deal say that Iran’s continued missile testing has given Trump one more reason to tear up his predecessor’s deal with the Islamist regime.
  • Michael Ratney, a top advisor to former Secretary of State John Kerry on Syria policy. Under the Trump administration, Ratney’s role at the State Department has been expanded to include Israel and Palestine issues. In July 2016, the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations disclosed that Ratney, who was the U.S. Consul in Jerusalem between 2012 and 2015, oversaw $465,000 in U.S. grants to the OneVoice Movement, a liberal group that waged a clandestine campaign to smear and remove Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu from office. Ratney admitted to Senate investigators that he deleted emails containing information about the Obama administration’s relationship with the non-profit group.

On March 30, Trump’s State Department announced that it would allow Jibril Rajoub, a Palestinian official known for promoting the murder and kidnapping of Israelis, into the United States for a series of high-level meetings on the Israel-Palestinian peace process.

Rajoub was sentenced in September 1970 to life in prison for throwing a grenade at an Israeli Army bus near Hebron. He served 15 years in prison, but was released in a 1985 prisoner exchange. Since then, he has repeatedly praised Palestinian terrorists who kill Israeli civilians. In an October 2015 television interview, Rajoub said:

“These are individual acts of bravery, and I am proud of them. I congratulate everyone who carried them out. I say to you, we are proud of you. Whoever confronts, fights, dies as a Martyr, is arrested or injured, they are assets to the entire Palestinian people.”

The Trump administration issued an anodyne statement that could easily have come from the Obama administration:

“The U.S. government does not endorse every statement Mr. Rajoub has made, but he has long been involved in Middle East peace efforts, and has publicly supported a peaceful, non-violent solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. We continue to press Fatah officials, including Rajoub himself, to refrain from any statements or actions that could be viewed as inciting or legitimizing others use of violence.”

Foreign affairs columnist Lawrence J. Haas has sharply criticized the administration’s embrace of Rajoub:

“Rajoub is no peace activist who just needs to tone down his rhetoric. He’s a hardcore Israel rejectionist who honors ‘martyrs,’ promotes murder and kidnapping, and envisions a Palestine that stretches from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea, erasing Israel in the process.

“The embrace of Rajoub raises profound questions as to whether President Donald Trump has a coherent policy toward Israel or, as seems more likely, disjointed policies are emerging from competing power centers across the administration that view Israel and the U.S.-Israeli alliance in profoundly different ways.”

Historian Daniel Pipes believes the Trump administration may follow Obama’s footsteps and ultimately turn against Israel. In an interview, Pipes said:

“I also wouldn’t be surprised if he [Trump] turned against Israel, seeing it as the intractable party because that is what often happens. Look at Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama: they make efforts and they get frustrated that the Israelis don’t give more because there is an enduring belief that if only the Israelis gave more, the Palestinians would relent and stop being rejectionists and everything would be fine. So, I am worried.”

Department of Defense

At the Pentagon, Defense Secretary James Mattis’s initial choice to be his second in command was Michèle Flournoy, a Democrat who was seen as a leading candidate for Defense Secretary in a Hillary Clinton administration. Flournoy turned down Mattis’s offer and the position continues to be filled by Robert O. Work, who was appointed to the job by President Obama. Some Republicans blame Work for Mattis’s failure to advocate for a greater increase in the defense budget.

Mattis, who fell out with the Obama administration over Iran, also proposed Anne W. Patterson as his choice for undersecretary for policy. Patterson served as U.S. ambassador to Egypt from 2011 to 2013, a time when the Obama administration supported the Muslim Brotherhood-backed government of then-President Mohamed Morsi. Patterson’s nomination was vetoed by the White House. The position is being filled by Theresa Whelan, a career member of the Senior Executive Service.

For the post of undersecretary for personnel and readiness, Mattis proposed Rudy de Leon, a veteran of the Clinton administration and a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank founded by Clinton acolyte John Podesta. De Leon, it so happens, signed a January 30 letter opposing Trump’s moratorium on migrants from six Muslim countries. The letter says the suspension is “inhumane” and “beneath the dignity of our great nation.”

Republicans on Capitol Hill have expressed frustration with Mattis. An aide to a Republican Senator on the Armed Services Committee said: “He certainly has got a tough job, but it sometimes feels like he forgets that we won the election.” Another said: “We’ve waited eight years for this, to be able to fill these posts with Republicans. We know Trump isn’t part of the establishment and that it’s going to be a bit different, but it should go without saying that a Republican administration is expected to staff federal agencies with Republicans.”

National Economic Council

The National Economic Council, the main forum for developing and coordinating the president’s economic program, is headed by Gary Cohn, a registered Democrat and, like Dina Powell, a former executive of Goldman Sachs. So far, so good.

As Trump’s top economic policy advisor, however, Cohn has sparred with Bannon over key aspects of the administration’s economic, tax and trade policies. Among other issues, the two men are said to have competing positions on the border adjustment tax (Bannon is for it, Cohn is not), the carbon tax (Cohn is for it, Bannon is not) and trade. Cohn is a free trade globalist who supports multilateral trade deals like the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), while Bannon is an economic nationalist who eschews them.

During his campaign, Trump repeatedly described NAFTA as a “disaster” and vowed to renegotiate the deal. On March 30, however, the Wall Street Journal, reviewing an administration draft proposal, reported that the White House is now seeking mostly minor changes to NAFTA and plans to retain some of its most controversial provisions.

Fox Business Correspondent Charlie Gasparino wrote:

“How Bannon and Cohn became senior officials in the Trump administration speaks to the president’s unorthodox management style, where he appoints people to key positions often based on gut and personal relationships.

“While Trump was naturally attracted to Bannon’s political and economic policies, he is said to be fond of Cohn’s assertive management style and stature; while at Goldman, Cohn was an imposing figure on the firm’s trading floor and later as a top executive, where he was regarded as the heir apparent to the firm’s chief executive Lloyd Blankfein.

“But now Trump’s management style is being put to the test on economic issues as Bannon and Cohn compete for the president’s ear.”

Roger Stone, a longtime Trump loyalist, has accused Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, of feeding “lies and intel” to the media to hurt Bannon and others who are arguing against the “globalist agenda.” In an interview with the Washington Examiner, Stone said:

“The president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, perhaps the one presidential aide who cannot be fired, is now in regular text-message communications with Joe Scarborough [a cable news and talk show host],” Stone said. “Many of the anti-Steve Bannon stories that you see, the themes that you see on ‘Morning Joe’ are being dictated by Kushner.”

Cohn and Powell are said to be allied with Trump’s eldest daughter Ivanka and Kushner. They are allegedly leading a White House faction that has been referred to as the “New York liberals.” They are reportedly battling with the Bannon faction of populist hardliners for policy influence on a wide variety of policy issues.

Former House speaker Newt Gingrich, an informal adviser to the president, put it this way: “It would be interesting to see to what degree the New York liberals change Trump and to what degree Trump changes the New York liberals.”

Conclusion

Trump has the opportunity to fill as many as 4,000 leadership and policymaking positions across the federal government, but he has vowed to leave many political appointments unfilled “because they’re unnecessary to have.”

As Lee Smith points out, the policy implications of the unfilled vacancies and the ongoing turf wars within the Trump administration are far-reaching:

“The main point is this: While the Trump cabinet is at daggers drawn, while it can’t hire the staff to implement the policies the president campaigned on — to destroy ISIS, to rein in Iran and crash the nuclear deal, to protect American citizens and interests, and to realign with allies like Israel that Obama made vulnerable — there are much more decisive and deadly conflicts going on almost everywhere around the world. The people who are handling key elements of those conflicts now are the same people who handled those areas under Obama, despite the results of the last election. No wonder the results look equally awful.”

Soeren Kern is a Senior Fellow at the New York-based Gatestone Institute. Follow him onFacebook and on Twitter.

McMaster staffing NSC with traditional GOP foreign policy hands

Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster looks on as President Trump announces him as his national security adviser at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, Fla., on Feb. 20. (NICHOLAS KAMM/Agence France-Presse via Getty Images)

McMaster chose GOP foreign policy expert Nadia Schadlow to be senior director for strategy and charged her with drafting the administration’s new national security strategy.

Washington Post, by Josh Rogin, April 4, 2017:

National security adviser H.R. McMaster is continuing to fill out his national security staff with conservative foreign policy experts from the establishment think-tank world, preferring them to the military intelligence types favored by his predecessor, retired Gen. Michael T. Flynn.

Two White House officials confirmed that McMaster has offered the post of senior director for South and Central Asia to Lisa Curtis, a well-known conservative expert and senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation. Curtis has accepted the offer and is going through the entry process now. Curtis has been a leading voice on the GOP side of the South Asia expert community for decades, having worked at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, as an adviser to the State Department during the George W. Bush administration and as an analyst with the CIA.

What’s illuminating about the pick is that McMaster decided to scuttle Flynn’s choice for the post, Brig. Gen. Robin Fontes, who is currently the defense attaché at the U.S. embassy in New Delhi. The Pentagon had already announced that Fontes was going to the NSC to take the senior director job, as she was offered the post by Flynn before his firing.

“General McMaster is doing the hiring and it reflects his priorities but it’s not a reaction against [Flynn],” one White House official told me. “This is going to give us significant person-power in an area where we need it.”

The Curtis appointment is only the latest McMaster choice that steers the NSC staff away from Flynn’s penchant for military intelligence officers he happened to know well. Last month, McMaster chose GOP foreign policy expert Nadia Schadlow to be senior director for strategy and charged her with drafting the administration’s new national security strategy.

Officials also confirmed that Fiona Hill, a Brookings Institution scholar and traditional GOP Russia hawk, will be senior director for Russia and Europe, a newly combined directorate that brings both regions under one chain of command. Originally, Flynn had selected Tim Shea, the defense intelligence officer for Eurasia at the Defense Intelligence Agency. Shea actually decided to go back to the DIA before Flynn was fired, a DIA spokesperson said.

Several other Flynn hires have also left since his departure, for a variety of reasons. Senior director for strategy Dave Horan left the same day as Flynn. Senior director for the Western Hemisphere Craig Deare, a former Marine intelligence officer, was shown the door after it was revealed he criticized Trump in a private think-tank meeting. Robin Townley, another former Marine intelligence officer, was forced to leave his post as senior director for Africa after the CIA denied him his security clearance.

Replacements for both of those regional senior director roles are in the works, officials said. The officials also confirmed reports that K.T. McFarland, the deputy national security adviser who arrived before McMaster, has been offered other roles outside the NSC, including a possible foreign ambassadorship. No transfer has been decided and McFarland might end up staying at the NSC, officials said.

McMaster wanted to get rid of Flynn’s senior director for intelligence programs, Ezra Cohen-Watnick, but top White House officials reportedly intervened on his behalf. Now that Cohen-Watnick is part of the controversy over the alleged unmasking of Trump transition officials who were caught up in incidental collection by American spy agencies, the White House is even more determined to keep him in place, officials said.

As for Curtis, she will soon be the only senior official appointed in the Trump administration who deals with the South Asia region, which includes the strategically important countries of India, Pakistan and Afghanistan, among others. There’s no permanent assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asian affairs, no Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan at the State Department and no assistant secretary of defense for Asian and Pacific Affairs at the Pentagon.

“It’s rather disheartening I’m sure for the people in the region,” said Shuja Nawaz, distinguished fellow at the Atlantic Council. “They are still fumbling for some direction as to how the Trump administration will deal with this region.”

No world leader from the region has visited the White House and the Trump administration has said very little about its plans for the region. It’s been particularly quiet about Afghanistan, where thousands of U.S. troops are stationed.

Also up in the air is whether the NSC staff will play a major role in foreign policymaking. In the recent visit of the Saudi crown prince and the upcoming visitof Chinese President Xi Jinping, senior adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner has taken the lead. Also, several senior GOP foreign policy hands interviewed for top administration jobs have been rejected by the White House because they expressed some anti-Trump views during the campaign, shrinking the pool from which candidates can be chosen.

McMaster’s filling out of the NSC staff with experts and professionals rather than Flynn’s battle buddies is a positive step toward normalizing the foreign policymaking process in the Trump administration. But that effort still has a very long way to go.

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