Congressional Update – Week Ending November 10, 2017

I. Congress

1) Legislation

USA Liberty Act. On November 8, the House Judiciary Committee marked up bill H.R. 3989, which is referred to as the Uniting and Strengthening American Liberty Act of 2017. This bill allows for the extension of the foreign surveillance authorizations originally passed in the 2008 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act Amendments Act. Within the original law is Section 702, which allows for courts to issue warrants for the collection of international communications of foreign persons for counterterrorism purposes. Civil liberties advocates have long held that this practice allows for the bulk surveillance of US citizens, though proponents of the law refute those claims. Unless it is reauthorized, the law would be invalidated—due to what is known as a sunset clause—at the end of December.

H.R. 3989 addresses a number of concerns of members of Congress, including strengthening protections for US citizens while allowing for intelligence agencies to continue conducting foreign surveillance. One significant development in this bill is the inclusion of a five-year sunset provision. The sunset clause of the 2008 law has been a huge point of contention between national security hawks, who want an indefinite authorization, and civil liberties advocates, who desire routine oversight of surveillance activities. The bill was approved by the committee, as amended, by a vote of 27-8. It will now move to the House floor for consideration.

NDAA FY 2018. On November 9, Congress released its conference report on the National Defense Authorization Act of 2018 (NDAA). The House and Senate both passed versions of the NDAA, but because they differed, members from both chambers met in conference to reconcile the differences. The language to which the sides agreed is over 2,400 pages long, and it appears all sides are content enough to see it through to law. The most noteworthy development is that members agreed to authorize discretionary defense spending of $692.1 billion, which is roughly $26 billion more than the White House requested. In addition, the language requires the administration to submit to Congress a report on strategies for navigating conflicts in Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen. The House is scheduled to consider the new language early next week, but the Senate has yet to announce its consideration of the bill.

2) Hearings

Russia: Counterterrorism Partner or Fanning the Flames? On November 7, the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Terrorism, Nonproliferation, and Trade and Subcommittee on Europe, Eurasia, and Emerging Threats held a joint hearing to assess whether it is in the United States’ security interests to work with Russia in counterterrorism efforts like defeating the Islamic State (IS) in Syria, or whether the Russian government actually contributes to worsening security issues. To answer these questions, the subcommittees heard testimonies from Drs. Colin Clarke (RAND Corporation), Svante Cornell (American Foreign Policy Council), and Michael Carpenter (University of Pennsylvania), as well as Simon Saradzhyan of the Harvard Kennedy School.

In short, the overwhelming majority of subcommittee members—noted Russia sympathizer Dana Rohrabacher (R-California) notwithstanding—and the entire panel of witnesses emphatically rejected the notion that it is the interest of the United States to partner with Russia on counterterrorism efforts. The witnesses recommended against partnering with Russia for three main reasons. First, they all agreed that Russia’s support for the Assad regime in Syria has undermined any credibility it might have in combatting terrorism. Going further, Dr. Cornell explained that Russia, through its indiscriminate bombing campaign and tacit support for Assad’s brutal tactics, may actually contribute to radicalization in Syria.

The second reason given by the witnesses is that in the near to medium future, Russia will likely be consumed by its own domestic terrorism problems and will have few resources to aid the United States. Dr. Clarke pointed out that the second most commonly spoken language among IS members in Syria is actually Russian. This is illustrative of the problems Russia could have once fighters flee Syria and try slipping back across Russia’s borders. Lastly, the witnesses argued that not only is Russia incapable of aiding the United States, but it is also unwilling to do so. Russia supports and arms numerous anti-American groups, the witnesses noted, including the Taliban and Lebanon’s Hezbollah. Partnering with Russia would be akin to working with the very terrorist groups looking to undermine US security interests.

Democracy and Governance in the Middle East and North Africa. On the same day, the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Middle East and North Africa convened a hearing to discuss the United States’ role in the promotion of democracy in the region. Witnesses included Scott Mastic of the International Republican Institute, Leslie Campbell of the National Democratic Institute, Zeinab Abdelkarim of the International Foundation for Electoral Systems, and Dr. Robert Herman of Freedom House.

There was broad support among subcommittee members and witnesses for a visible and persistent US presence in promoting democratic governance in the region. However, all were in agreement that, thus far, the United States lacks any meaningful and actionable long-term strategy for promoting democracy. The witnesses characterized the current state of affairs in the Middle East and North Africa as having great potential for increasing democratic government. Mr. Mastic noted that the uprisings during the Arab Spring resulted in the emergence of a class of young leaders in civil societies throughout the region. To capitalize on the potential of these young leaders, the witnesses recommended investing in institutions and programs that promote democracy, especially at the local level. In addition, they recommended that Congress take the lead in supporting governments that pursue democratic reforms and continue pushing the importance of human rights.

Moving the American Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. On November 8, the House Oversight Subcommittee on National Security held a hearing to assess the challenges and opportunities of moving the US Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. To discuss the challenges and opportunities before the panel were Ambassadors John Bolton and Dore Gold, Morton Klein of the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA), Eugene Kontorovich of Northwestern University, and Michael Koplow of the Israel Policy Forum.

Members of the subcommittee and panelists almost unanimously agreed the United States should move its embassy to Jerusalem, as mandated by the Jerusalem Embassy Act of 1995. What little dissent existed was predicated not on whether or not to move it, but the timing of such a move. Four of the five panelists emphatically implored Congress and the Trump Administration to move the embassy immediately, while Koplow urged caution, as any disruption to the status quo of Jerusalem may prompt protests and violence and harm US relations with Arab allies in the region. The other witnesses refuted Koplow’s claims that the move would jeopardize peace negotiations and regional stability, and most went further, stating that the move would actually improve prospects for peace negotiations—a stance that is questioned by many experts.

The hearing, at times, was contentious, bordering on inflammatory. At other moments, pro-Israel lawmakers competed in a kind of one-upmanship, clamoring to look even more accepting of the positions held by some of Israel’s more right-wing elements. Overall, the hearing gave the impression that there is almost universal agreement that the embassy should be moved. The push for the move could come to fruition soon because, per the law enshrined in 1995, the president must sign a waiver if he intends to prevent moving the embassy. Trump must decide whether to issue a waiver again in December.

II. Executive Branch

1) State Department

US-Qatar Counterterrorism Dialogue. On November 8, officials of the US and Qatari governments held the first joint counterterrorism dialogue in Washington. The meeting was intended to be an extension of the memorandum of understanding signed between the two earlier in the year when concerns about Qatar’s role in terrorism financing were raised by allies in the Gulf and scholars in Washington. All indications point to a productive meeting between State Department officials and the Qatari delegation.

Tillerson Issues Joint Statement on Chemical Weapons. Later that day, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson joined the foreign ministers of the United Kingdom, France, and Germany to issue a statement on multiple chemical attacks on civilians in Syria this year. According to the leading diplomats, the United Nations’ banned weapons investigative arm—the Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM)—confirmed that the Assad regime and IS were responsible for the death of dozens of civilians in chemical weapons attacks this year. The foreign ministers also confirmed their confidence in the JIM and called on the international community to take actions in response to the findings.

Tillerson is Relatively Absent from Middle East Developments. Secretary Tillerson has faced serious criticism this week for his failure to forcefully speak up about developments in the region. While accompanying President Trump on his East Asia tour, the secretary has been deafeningly silent on the escalation of events unfolding in Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and Lebanon. Only late this week did the State Department announce any communication between Tillerson and Arab leaders, indicating that he discussed the corruption arrests in Riyadh with the Saudi foreign minister. Additionally, only today (November 10) did the State Department post a response to the brewing trouble in Lebanon. As tensions rise in the already unstable region, it will be interesting to see whether Tillerson or other US officials step in to serve as a calming presence to urge a reduction in tensions.