White House pushed Saudi nuclear power plan, report says
By CHAD DAY
Tuesday, February 19
WASHINGTON (AP) — Senior White House officials pushed a project to share nuclear power technology with Saudi Arabia despite the objections of ethics and national security officials, according to a new congressional report citing whistle blowers within the administration.
Lawmakers from both parties have expressed concerns that Saudi Arabia could develop nuclear weapons if the U.S. technology were transferred without proper safeguards.
The Democratic-led House oversight committee opened an investigation Tuesday into the claims by several unnamed whistle blowers who said they witnessed “abnormal acts” in the White House regarding the proposal to build dozens of nuclear reactors across the Middle Eastern kingdom.
The report raises concerns about whether some in a White House marked by “chaos, dysfunction, and backbiting” sought to circumvent established national security procedures regarding nuclear power technology. It also comes as Trump son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner is developing a Middle East peace plan that could include economic proposals for Saudi Arabia.
The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
According to the report, the effort was pushed by former national security adviser Michael Flynn, who was fired in early 2017. Derek Harvey, a National Security Council official brought in by Flynn, continued work on the proposal, which has remained under consideration by the Trump administration.
Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, the chairman of the House Oversight and Reform Committee, announced the investigation Tuesday.
Relying on the whistle blower accounts and email communications, the committee’s report details how NSC and ethics officials repeatedly warned that the actions of Flynn and one of his senior aides could run afoul of federal conflicts of interest law and statutes governing the transfer of nuclear technology to foreign powers.
The probe puts new scrutiny on Flynn’s early days in the administration as he awaits sentencing for lying to the FBI in the Russia investigation. Congressional investigators are also probing the role of Tom Barrack, a proponent of the nuclear proposal who ran Trump’s presidential inaugural committee, which is separately under investigation by federal prosecutors in New York. Rick Gates, a former Barrack employee and cooperator in special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation, was also involved in advocating for the nuclear proposal.
An attorney for Flynn declined to comment. Harvey and representatives for Barrack did not immediately return requests for comment.
According to the report, the whistle blowers came forward to the committee because they had concerns “about efforts inside the White House to rush the transfer of highly sensitive U.S. nuclear technology to Saudi Arabia in potential violation of the Atomic Energy Act and without review by Congress as required by law — efforts that may be ongoing to this day.”
The report tracks closely with public reporting, including a 2017 article by the nonprofit news outlet ProPublica, which detailed some of the concerns raised inside the National Security Council about the nuclear proposal — known as the “Marshall Plan for the Middle East — advocated by a company called IP3 International.
IP3 is led by a group of retired U.S. military officers and national security officials, including retired Rear Adm. Michael Hewitt, retired Army Gen. Jack Keane and former Reagan national security adviser Bud McFarlane. IP3 and other proponents of nuclear power in the Middle East argue that the U.S. needs to be involved because otherwise it will lose out to Russia, China and others on billions of dollars in business. They also say that the U.S. involvement — and the limits on nuclear fuel that come with it— are essential to stem an arms race in the region.
IP3 did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Up until the month before he joined the Trump administration, Flynn listed himself as a consultant to a previous iteration of Hewitt’s company advocating a similar nuclear power proposal, though the company told The Washington Post that Flynn was offered a role as an adviser but never formally came aboard.
Still, according to the report, Flynn served as a conduit for IP3 inside the White House.
Just days after Trump’s inauguration, the company sent Flynn a draft memo for the president’s signature that would have appointed Barrack as a “special representative” in charge of carrying out the nuclear power proposal and called on the director of the CIA and the secretaries of State, Energy, Treasury and Defense to lend him support. The report also quotes former deputy national security adviser K.T. McFarland as saying Trump personally told Barrack he could lead the plan’s implementation.
The report also catalogs the actions of Harvey, the Flynn confidant who was put in charge of the NSC’s Middle East and North African affairs.
According to the report, upon entering the White House in January 2017, Harvey saw his mission as getting Trump to adopt the nuclear proposal despite the objections of ethics and national security officials. Even when H.R. McMaster, who replaced Flynn as national security adviser, and NSC lawyer John Eisenberg directed for work to stop on the proposal because of concerns about its legality, Harvey ignored them and continued pursuing the proposal, according to the report.
Harvey was fired from the NSC in July 2017. He then joined the staff of Rep. Devin Nunes of California, a Trump ally and the former Republican chairman of the House intelligence committee.
Associated Press writers Darlene Superville and Stephen Braun in Washington and Jim Mustian in New York contributed to this report.
Trump moving closer to goal of creating a Space Force
WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump is moving closer toward his goal of creating a Space Force, just not as the separate military department he envisioned.
The Space Force instead will begin as part of the Air Force – similar to how the Marine Corps is part of the Navy – but could become its own separate department in the future. That’s according to senior administration officials who briefed journalists on a directive Trump planned to sign Tuesday establishing the Space Force.
Trump says it’s needed to ensure U.S. dominance in space. Some lawmakers have expressed concerns about the need and potential cost.
Cost details will be included in the 2020 budget proposal Trump sends Congress next month.
Administration officials spoke on condition of anonymity under grounds rules set by the White House.
Judge orders Roger Stone to court over Instagram post
By MICHAEL BALSAMO
Tuesday, February 19
WASHINGTON (AP) — A federal judge on Tuesday ordered Roger Stone to appear in court to consider whether to revoke his bail after the longtime Donald Trump confidant posted a photo on Instagram of the judge with what appeared to be cross hairs of a gun.
U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson said Stone must show for a hearing Thursday afternoon and prove why she shouldn’t modify or revoke his bail or implement a full gag order in his case.
On Monday, Stone posted a photo of Jackson with what appeared to be cross hairs near her head. Later in the day, Stone and his attorneys filed a notice with the court that they recognized the “photograph and comment today was improper and should not have been posted.”
Stone said the photo was “misinterpreted” and that it was “a random photo taken from the Internet.” He dismissed any suggestion that he was trying to threaten the judge as “categorically false.”
The political operative and self-described dirty trickster has pleaded not guilty to charges he lied to Congress, engaged in witness tampering and obstructed a congressional investigation into possible coordination between Russia and Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign.
The charges stem from conversations he had during the 2016 election about WikiLeaks, the anti-secrecy group that released material stolen from Democratic groups, including Hillary Clinton’s campaign.
Stone was arrested last month and is the sixth Trump aide or adviser charged in special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation. He’s currently free on a $250,000 personal recognizance bond.
Last week, Jackson issued a limited gag order, which prevents Stone from discussing his case near the courthouse and generally bars his lawyers, prosecutors and witnesses from making public comments that could “pose a substantial likelihood” of prejudicing potential jurors. But the order did not constrain Stone from making other public comments about the prosecution or his case. Stone’s lawyers argued that placing any limits on his public comments would infringe on his constitutionally protected right to free speech.
In implementing the limited gag order on Friday, Jackson said it was necessary to “maintain the dignity and seriousness of the courthouse and these proceedings.”
Stone has maintained his innocence and blasted the special counsel’s investigation as politically motivated. He has also criticized his case as involving only “process crimes.”
On Tuesday, Stone posted a photo of a book he received from a supporter, writing in an Instagram post that he was praying that it “protects me from the fake news media who are smearing me and purposely misinterpreting everything I say.”
AP source: FBI had backup plan to save Russia probe evidence
By ERIC TUCKER
WASHINGTON (AP) — The FBI developed a backup plan to protect evidence in its Russia investigation soon after the firing of FBI Director James Comey in the event that other senior officials were dismissed as well, according to a person with knowledge of the discussions.
The plan was crafted in the chaotic days after Comey was fired, when the FBI began investigating whether President Donald Trump had obstructed justice and whether he might be, wittingly or not, in league with the Russians. The goal was to ensure that the information collected under the investigations, which included probes of Trump associates and possible coordination between Russia and the Trump campaign, would survive the firings or reassignments of top law enforcement officials. Those officials included special counsel Robert Mueller, who was appointed eight days after Trump fired Comey in May 2017.
Andrew McCabe, who became acting director after Comey was fired, asked investigators to develop a plan to ensure evidence would be protected, said the person, who was not authorized to talk about those discussions publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity to The Associated Press. A plan was then created, according to the person, who would not provide specifics. A second person familiar with the talks, who also spoke on condition of anonymity, also said the FBI discussed preserving evidence so that it would outlast any firing or effort to stymie the investigation.
A spokeswoman for the FBI declined to comment Tuesday.
McCabe hinted at that anxiety in an interview that aired Sunday with CBS News’s “60 Minutes,” saying he met with investigators after Comey’s firing.
“I was very concerned that I was able to put the Russia case on absolutely solid ground, in an indelible fashion,” McCabe said. “That were I removed quickly, or reassigned or fired, that the case could not be closed or vanish in the night without a trace.”
He added, “I wanted to make sure that our case was on solid ground and if somebody came in behind me and closed it and tried to walk away from it, they would not be able to do that without creating a record of why they made that decision.”
Trump has repeatedly decried the Mueller probe as a “witch hunt” and has suggested that investigators themselves should be investigated. Attorney General Jeff Sessions was forced out last year amid the president’s anger over his recusal from the Russia investigation.
McCabe himself was fired last year after the Justice Department’s inspector general concluded that he had misled officials about his role in a news media disclosure. McCabe has denied the allegations, described his firing as politically motivated and, in a series of interviews this week, has said he plans to sue the Justice Department over it.
Tense standoff spells endgame for IS militants in Syria
By SARAH EL DEEB
Tuesday, February 19
BAGHOUZ, Syria (AP) — The collection of tents was largely silent on a sunny winter Monday afternoon. Few people were visible, but the few out and about were calm: Two men in long robes and pants walked slowly together through the grass, a woman leisurely came out of her tent to look around, a man on a motorcycle drove toward the river.
This is the last speck of land held by the Islamic State group — a patch along the Euphrates River in eastern Syria where an estimated 300 militants are mixed in with hundreds of civilians, refusing to surrender and trying to negotiate an exit with the U.S.-backed forces surrounding them.
An Associated Press team got a rare glimpse of the IS-held settlement, standing on a rooftop about a kilometer (half mile) away during a media tour to the front lines organized by the Syrian Democratic Forces. The roof looked out over a flat, green landscape with scattered palm trees, to an earthen berm and a line of pickup trucks put up by the militants at the edge of the camp.
At one point, gunfire crackled in the distance. An SDF commander on the roof with a number of fighters said it isn’t always so quiet. Only days earlier the militants surprised the soldiers with an attempted night raid. The SDF can’t assault the site or call in airstrikes because of the civilians, he said, adding that his fighters have seen the militants moving civilians around at gunpoint as protection.
“They try a psychological war. But that is it! The war is over, and we won,” said the commander, who spoke on condition he be identified only by his nom de guerre, Baran, in line with SDF rules.
The tense standoff by the village of Baghouz is the endgame for the militant group that since 2014 controlled a vast stretch of territory across Syria and Iraq — at one point nearly from Aleppo to Baghdad — and ruled for years, aspiring to create an enduring and expanding jihadi state. The 300 militants in the pocket may include high-level figures and are believed to hold hostages.
Activists said a truce in place has been extended for five days as of Sunday. A person familiar with ongoing deliberations said the group has asked for an exit through a corridor to the rebel-held northwestern province of Idlib and demand to be allowed to leave along with the civilians. The person spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak about the talks, which he described as taking place indirectly.
Baran said the militants had sent messages with civilians they allowed to out up until last week, asking for a corridor out to Idlib and Turkey. Since Wednesday, no civilians came out of the pocket. The SDF denies any negotiations are taking place
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an activist group that monitors the civil war in Syria, said another request by IS to be evacuated to neighboring Iraq was also rejected. IS released 10 SDF fighters it had been holding on Sunday, but it was not clear what, if anything, the extremists would get in return, the Observatory said. Soldiers reported some of their colleagues have also been released since.
The SDF appears to be aiming to wait the militants out. “They don’t have supplies in the area they are in that would last for a week or more,” said Baran, the commander.
But DeirEzzor 24, an activist collective in eastern Syria, said several trucks loaded with food entered the IS-held areas Sunday. It also reported the release of the SDF fighters, without saying whether there was a quid pro quo.
The SDF and the U.S.-led coalition have been fighting IS in the surrounding region since September. In recent years, they and other forces have steadily driven IS from nearly all the territory it once controlled, in battles that have killed tens of thousands of people and left entire towns and neighborhoods in ruins.
Villages leading to Baghouz lie mostly empty and destroyed, ghost towns where the only sign of life is wild grass that grew after weeks of rare heavy rain.
At least 62 people have died in recent weeks, mainly from exhaustion and malnutrition, after making their way out of militant-held territory, the International Rescue Committee said. Spokesman Paul Donohoe said two-thirds were children under the age of one. He said they either died along the way or soon after arriving at a camp for the displaced.
Over 30,000 people who left the last IS-held areas have arrived at the al-Hol camp in Syria’s northern Hassakeh province in the last few weeks, raising the overall population of the camp to almost 42,000.
In Baghouz, SDF fighters hold a base they seized from the militants last week after intense fighting and a blitz of airstrikes.
The militants appear to have used the base as a makeshift hospital. Medical supplies and medicine were strewn all over the floor. In a car outside the three-story pink building, a blank form for medical procedures was folded and picked up by an SDF soldiers. Pills, believed to be uppers, were also left in the car.
In the backyard, soldiers buried two IS militants, including one who had lost a leg but continued to fight. A suicide vest still lay in the debris.
Scattered in the dirt outside the building were various items left behind. The ID cards of two men from Aleppo province, including a 30-year old father of a 3-year-old; a teddy bear; and not far away a torn copy of “Milestones on the Road,” a seminal book from the 1960s by Egyptian radical Islamic Sayyid Qutb that has been a major influence on jihadi groups around the world.
Associated Press writer Bassem Mroue in Beirut contributed.
Efforts to evacuate civilians from IS area in Syria resume
By SARAH EL DEEB
AL-OMAR OIL FIELD BASE, Syria (AP) — Dozens of trucks arrived Tuesday at the outskirts of a besieged enclave held by the Islamic State group in eastern Syria, signaling renewed efforts to evacuate hundreds of civilians trapped in the militants’ last patch of territory along the Euphrates River.
A spokesman for the U.S.-backed Syrian militia that is spearheading the fight against IS said a military operation aimed at ousting the extremists from the enclave will begin if they don’t surrender.
Such an operation would take place after separating or evacuating civilians from the militants, estimated to be about 300 combatants, said Mustafa Bali, the spokesman for the Syrian Democratic Forces.
The Islamic State group has been reduced from its self-proclaimed caliphate that once spread across much of Syria and Iraq at its height in 2014 to a speck of land on the countries’ shared border. In that tiny pocket on the banks of the river, the militants are hiding among civilians in the shadow of a small hill, encircled by forces waiting to declare the territorial defeat of the extremist group.
“We are working on either separating the civilians or evacuating them and raiding the place,” Bali told The Associated Press.
His comments came as there appeared to be an easing in the standoff and as an evacuation of civilians appeared to be resuming a week after it had stopped when the militants closed all the roads.
AP journalists saw dozens of trucks moving to the tip of a humanitarian corridor used in past weeks. That corridor had been deserted for the last week after thousands fled through it.
About 40 civilians, including a French woman, left the enclave Tuesday morning, apparently after paying smugglers, said a member of the Free Burma Rangers, a volunteer medical group.
By sundown, there was no sign of any civilians coming out. On the other side of the IS-held pocket, an airstrike was launched by the U.S.-led coalition.
An SDF commander, Zana Amedi, said his group made a final warning to remaining militants to surrender. In a Twitter post, he said most of them are seriously wounded or sick.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based war monitor, said about 50 trucks belonging to the coalition arrived at the outskirts of the area.
Adnan Afrin, a commander with the SDF, said a number of civilians and some fighters have turned themselves in, and that the trucks went to the corridor to get them. He reported some clashes on the other side of the enclave between IS militants who don’t want to surrender and SDF fighters.
A U.N. official said she is concerned about the condition of the some 200 families trapped in the enclave.
In a statement issued in Geneva, U.N. human rights chief Michelle Bachelet said the extremists are actively preventing civilians, including women and children, from leaving the area.
The International Rescue Committee said Monday that more than 60 people have died in recent weeks after making their way out of the IS-controlled area, most of them from exhaustion and malnutrition. They either died along the way or soon after arriving at a massive camp in northern Syria that is hosting those fleeing in eastern Deir el-Zour province.
In southern Syria, near the border with Jordan, the Syrian government opened two humanitarian corridors Tuesday with the help of Russian troops for people who want to move from one camp to other parts of the country, the Russian Defense Ministry said.
The Rukban camp is home to about 40,000 displaced people who suffer from lack of food and medical supplies. It was not immediately clear if people had started leaving.
Last week, the U.N. and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent delivered badly needed humanitarian assistance as Russia offered to help relocate those willing to move to government-held areas in Syria.
Jordan closed the border because of security concerns. The Syrian government and its ally, Russia, have blamed U.S. troops stationed nearby for failing to provide security for aid shipments — allegations denied by the Americans.
In other fighting, government forces shelled a bakery, killing at least four people, including children, in the town of Khan Sheikhoun in Idlib province, the Observatory said. The Syrian Civil Defense, a government opposition group, said the shells killed five people, including two children, and also wounded five others. It said the bakery was knocked out of service.
Associated Press writers Bassem Mroue in Beirut and Jamey Keaten in Geneva contributed.