Congressional Update – Week Ending January 19, 2018

I. Congress

The US federal government, excluding the military and a few essential agencies, is likely to run out of money this weekend. While the House of Representatives hurried through a spending package that would keep the government’s lights on for four more weeks, it does not appear that Senate Republicans will be able to bypass a Democratic filibuster, all but ensuring that the government shuts down until a palatable deal can be struck between the two sides on spending, immigration, and border security.

1) Legislation

H.R. 3326. On January 17, the House of Representatives passed a bill (by a vote of 236-184, as amended) called the World Bank Accountability Act of 2017. As the name infers, members of Congress hope this bill will entice the World Bank—an international organization tasked with aiding developing countries to reach a sustainable level of development and provide crucial services to their citizens—to undertake reforms and be more accountable with the money provided by the international community. Under this bill, the United States—which is the body’s single biggest donor—would withhold up to 30 percent of funds until the US Department of the Treasury can certify that the World Bank has instituted a number of reforms, including correcting management failures, conducting forensic auditing, and operating in a manner more conducive to poverty reduction. If Treasury cannot certify that the bill’s demands have been met, the World Bank would lose potentially hundreds of millions of dollars; this could jeopardize any number of projects taking place across the globe, including the hundreds of projects worth billions that are centered in Middle Eastern and Arab countries. The bill will move on to the Senate for consideration.

139. The same day, the Senate voted to adopt S. 139, which the House used as a vehicle for passing a new authorization for the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. The bill grants the National Security Agency (NSA) the broad ability—given that the agency receives a warrant from the secretive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court—to collect the electronic communications of any foreign person residing outside the United States. The spying authorization is championed by national security hawks as a vital tool for preventing terrorist attacks and, in the soon-to-be new law, this side gets guarantees that the NSA can continue conducting bulk collection of electronic communications (e.g., phone calls, text messages, emails, Skype calls) to search for intelligence. Civil liberties advocates won what appeared to be some concessions with this bill, namely that the authorization will expire in six years (i.e., it “sunsets”) and that investigative agencies in the United States, like the Federal Bureau of Investigation, must now get a warrant if they hope to use US citizens’ communications—which are frequently gathered up incidentally in the NSA’s broad sweeps in order to open criminal investigations against those citizens. However, many of these same activists are frustrated by the seeming lack of protections and there will very likely be legal challenges to this bill in the near future. The bill is slated to go to President Trump’s desk for his signature.

H.R. 4821. On January 18, the House of Representatives introduced another bill to levy sanctions against Iran. This time, the legislation targets any entity owned or controlled by Iran’s armed forces. It appears that this bill aims to broaden the sanctions regime beyond entities controlled or owned by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corp—which is just one branch of Iran’s armed forces—to include any entity owned or controlled by any part of Iran’s overall military. The bill, offered by Reps. Peter Roskam (R-Illinois), Liz Cheney (R-Wyoming), and 17 others, is promoted as an alternative to what Senators Bob Corker (R-Tennessee) and Ben Cardin (D-Maryland) have been working on. Both chambers have been crafting new Iran sanctions legislation to appease President Trump, who has indicated he could reimpose sanctions and scuttle the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action in the coming months. The bill was referred to the House Foreign Affairs Committee for consideration.

2) Hearings

Battlefield Successes and Challenges: Recent Efforts to Win the War Against ISIS. On January 17, the House Oversight and Government Reform Subcommittee on National Security held a hearing to reflect on the successes the United States and its allies have had against the so-called Islamic State (IS) in Iraq and Syria, as well as examine the potential challenges moving forward. The witnesses who testified before the subcommittee included Michael Pregent of the Hudson Institute, Philip Lohaus of the American Enterprise Institute, Robert Pape, Jr. of the University of Chicago, and former deputy assistant to President Donald Trump, Sebastian Gorka.

Chairman Ron DeSantis (R-Florida), who has positioned himself as one of the president’s most steadfast and ideological supporters, began the hearing by listing the ways in which he feels President Trump is responsible for the destruction of IS and its self-proclaimed “caliphate.” Like DeSantis, Gorka used his opening remarks to laud President Trump for what he considered to be a stark departure from the Obama Administration’s weakness in fighting the terrorist group in Iraq and Syria. Gorka—who is derided by most academics for his far-right views, limited experience in the field of terrorism, and subpar academic record—explained that the new administration deserves credit for devolving authorities for the use of military force in the field of battle, boosting the morale of US forces in the Middle East, and challenging allies to step up in what he described as the “ideological fight against radical Islamic terror.”

The remaining speakers took more nuanced approaches to assessing the current state of affairs and future challenges regarding the fight against IS. Pregent, Lohaus, and to some degree, Pape, all agreed that both the Obama and Trump Administrations deserve credit for achieving the degradation of IS. Though they all acknowledged differing strategies between the two administrations’ efforts, they all also agreed there were a number of similarities in their strategies. After debating to whom the credit belongs, the three witnesses offered recommendations for facing the challenges moving forward. Pape, Pregent, and Lohaus all insisted that military success in liberating previously held IS territory are valuable, but they cannot be a precursor to American withdrawal from the region. Additionally, all three explained that the United States—and the Trump Administration, more specifically—must clarify policy positions for post-IS Iraq and Syria so the United States can better help the Syrian and Iraqi people self-govern, find economic sustainability, and ultimately prevent the kind of disenfranchised, ungoverned populations that gave rise to IS in the first place.

Terrorism and Social Media: #IsBigTechDoingEnough? On January 17, the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation held a hearing to explore the effectiveness of major tech companies’ efforts to counter extremist propaganda proliferating on their platforms. The panel discussion was intended to inform members of the methods mega tech companies like Facebook, Twitter, and Google (which owns the video streaming site YouTube) are using to counter violent extremism—or as Senator John Thune (R-South Dakota) described it, “violent Islamic terrorist groups”—on the Internet. Though there are numerous extremist groups that use social media to push their propaganda, perhaps no group more shockingly or effectively used the aforementioned platforms like IS did during the zenith of its power. To discuss the use of social media to incite and influence the use of terrorism, the committee sought testimonies from Monika Bickert of Facebook, Juniper Downs of YouTube, Carlos Monje, Jr. of Twitter, and Clinton Watts of the Foreign Policy Research Institute.

Chairman Thune and Ranking Member Bill Nelson (D-Florida) used their opening statements to outline similar concerns with the dilemma facing big tech companies and the US government alike. How, they mused, do the government and companies preserve these platforms and maintain the openness and sharing of ideas that make them so popular, while at the same time, protect these arenas from criminals and the propaganda emanating from terrorist organizations? Nelson also mentioned Russia’s influence in the 2016 presidential elections and the nefarious use of the Internet in general when describing the need for companies to take preventative measures to protect their platforms.

The witnesses representing Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter all held similar opinions, with only subtle differences. These witnesses focused on the need for collaboration, agility, and innovation in their fields. Bickert reassured members that over 99 percent of the content that is removed by Facebook is content found to be dangerous by their team of over 7,500 terrorism experts and content reviewers. She also emphasized the work Facebook conducts with 11 other companies to maintain a database of “hashes,” a kind of digital fingerprint, of extremist content. Downs explained that YouTube maintains a team of experts working in an “expert flagger program” that monitors flagged content 24 hours a day, resulting in roughly 70 percent of all extremist videos being removed from the site within the first eight hours of the upload. Downs accentuated the usefulness of her company’s innovative techniques, including the use of machine learning technologies that are becoming more effective in detecting new terrorist content. Jigsaw Technology—cited as a success by both Downs and Bickert—is one example of machine learning technology that has been developed by Google and is used to promote “counter speech.” This innovative technology targets users with advertisements and videos in an attempt to disrupt the online radicalization process.

Monje quantified the success of Twitter’s own work in countering the use of its platform by extremists. A Twitter team detects over 90 percent of all purported terrorist accounts before any other users even learn of them; the team is capable of stopping 75 percent of those accounts from issuing even one tweet. Like Bickert and Downs before him, Monje highlighted extensive collaborative efforts, particularly the Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism, which was established in 2017 to research ways to monitor extremist content and share those findings with smaller tech companies.

Watts testified last and was more skeptical about the methods used by the major tech companies. However, he believed that social media companies are in a better position to counter violent extremism on social media platforms than US intelligence agencies or the Department of Homeland Security, neither of which have the technical knowledge to understand the signatures behind manipulative social media posts. Watts ended with three major points. First, he highlighted the difference between anonymity and authenticity and stressed the importance of ensuring anonymous accounts represent legitimate users and not bots. Second, he warned the committee about the rise in the use of bots to spread propaganda. Third, Watts argued that social media companies rely too heavily on technology to catch bad actors, although technology itself can have serious shortcomings. In general, Watts was critical of what he considered to be reactionary methods used by social media companies instead of more proactive and predictive efforts.

II. Executive Branch

1) White House

Vice President Pence Visits Middle East. On January 19, Vice President Mike Pence left for a five-day trip to the Middle East. He will first visit Egypt then Jordan, where he is supposed to discuss bilateral military and security relations with each country’s respective leader. After Jordan, Pence will make an appearance in Israel, where he will hold meetings with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Reuven Rivlin as well as give a speech before the Knesset and visit the Western Wall. When the trip was first announced, it appeared to be a much more intensive visit to the region that would include meetings with officials of the Palestinian Authority (PA) and high-ranking Muslim and Coptic Christian figures in Egypt. However, in the wake of President Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, the Egyptian religious officials and PA members have canceled their meetings, vowing to boycott Pence’s visits.

Trump Administration Could End Protected Status for Syrians. In the early weeks of the Trump presidency, the White House issued a pair of travel bans and a limit to the number of refugees who could enter the country from, among other states, Syria. This week it has been reported that Syrians already in the United States—nearly 7,000 individuals—could have their “temporary protected status” (TPS) revoked in the next few weeks. The Trump Administration faces a January 30 deadline about whether to extend the protections first afforded the group by President Obama in 2012. Recent decisions regarding the same TPS for citizens of Haiti and El Salvador do not bode well for the fate of Syrians’ TPS.

2) Department of State

Secretary Tillerson Outlines US Strategy for Syria. On January 17, after leaving ministerial meetings in Vancouver, Canada, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson stopped by Stanford University’s Hoover Institution to share his thoughts on US strategy for Syria. To date, this was the most comprehensive outline of the Trump Administration’s policy toward Syria. To start his presentation, Tillerson outlined the recent history in Syria under the rule of the Assads—both current leader Bashar and his father and predecessor Hafez. He detailed the long history of oppression, violence, and mass killings that the Syrian people have endured under Assad rule. Tillerson then went on to illustrate how the current Syrian war began and he described the rise and brief rule of the so-called Islamic State in Syria and neighboring Iraq.

Shifting to current issues, Tillerson said the Trump Administration’s policies toward Syria are based on three conditions that currently characterize the state of affairs: IS has been dealt a significant blow, but the group still has a presence in the country; Bashar al-Assad controls roughly 50 percent of Syria’s territory and its population; and the United States, its allies, and its interests continue to face threats emanating from the ungoverned spaces in Syria, notably from the presence of Iranian fighters and Iranian-backed proxy forces. With those conditions in mind, the secretary laid out the five goals the Trump Administration hopes to realize in Syria. Tillerson said the administration is focused on seeing the total defeat of IS and other terrorist groups like Syria’s al-Qaeda affiliate, an end to the civil conflict between the Assad regime and everyday Syrians, a diminished role for Iran and its proxies in Syria, the safe and willing return of refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) to liberated areas of the country, and an end to the presence of weapons of mass destruction—be they chemical, biological, or otherwise—inside Syria.

To reach these goals, Secretary Tillerson explained that the United States will maintain a military presence in Syria until conditions on the ground signal that stability and security will remain beyond the presence of US troops. Because this conflict cannot be ended strictly through military means, however, Tillerson acknowledged the need to boost US diplomatic efforts in Syria. Additionally, the secretary outlined steps for realizing and maintaining stability and security in the country. First, the United States, its allies, and local partners in Syria will move to stabilize liberated areas by providing services and reopening medical and educational facilities. Second, the international community will continue to work together to create de-escalation zones that provide safe havens for refugees and IDPs in Syria. Third, Tillerson emphasized the need to continue counterterrorism efforts with partners, including local Syrian forces and Turkey. Fourth, Tillerson explained that the last two steps are interconnected; a political solution must be reached in the Syrian conflict under the auspices of the United Nations through the Geneva negotiating process and, as a condition of that settlement, Bashar al-Assad must step down from his role as Syria’s leader. Without the latter condition, Tillerson warned that the United States and its allies would refuse to provide the funds and services that are integral to reconstructing Syria’s cities and infrastructure once a political settlement is realized.

Tillerson Meets with Jordan’s Foreign Minister. Upon his return to Washington, Secretary Tillerson met with Jordan’s foreign minister, Ayman Safadi. The two spoke about developments in the Middle East, including the situation in Syria and the plight of the Palestinians in the West Bank.

III. US on the World Stage

Trump Administration Freezes Millions Earmarked for UNRWA. On January 16, the Trump Administration announced it would be freezing $65 million, an amount that was originally earmarked for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA). The aid group is best known for its food aid, health services, and education work with Palestinian refugees throughout the Middle East and its work is crucial to maintaining stability in Jordan and Lebanon, as well as the Occupied Palestinian Territories. UNRWA is scheduled to receive only $60 million from the United States in 2018, well below the $350 million it received from Washington in 2017.

The announcement has already evoked responses of anger and fear. For Palestinians in places like the West Bank and Gaza, much of their livelihood depends on the aid provided by UNRWA. As for neighboring states like Lebanon and Jordan, UNRWA’s support helps maintain stability by providing for sizable Palestinian refugee populations. Without that support, both states could find themselves struggling to provide basic services and leaders fear this could eventually lead to a breakdown in governance. European allies are also apparently frustrated by the move and have pledged to take a greater role in supporting the group.

Speaking of Frustration with the US, Poll Shows Approval of US Leadership Plunges. This week, Gallup released its findings from a worldwide survey assessing the approval ratings of four world powers: the United States, Germany, Russia, and China. The results show that global approval of US leadership dropped from 48 percent under the Obama Administration to merely 30 percent one year into the Trump Administration. While approval dropped significantly in allied countries in Europe and Asia, the Middle East showed mixed trends. Israel’s approval of US leadership under Trump boomed, which might be unsurprising, but approval also rose in Iraq, Morocco, Algeria, and among Palestinians in the Occupied Territories (it is noteworthy that the poll was conducted between March and November 2017, before Trump’s Jerusalem announcement in December). However, plenty of other Arab states contributed to the downward trend. Approval of US leadership declined to varying degrees in Tunisia, Mauritania, and Lebanon, and, while there was no previous comparative data, approval ratings in Libya were dismally low. To round out the broader Middle East, Turkey and Iran both registered declines in support for US leadership globally.