Congressional Update (Extended Edition) – Week Ending December 01, 2017

I. Congress

1) Legislation and Correspondence

Res. 632. Reps. Brendan Boyle (D-Pennsylvania) and Adam Kinzinger (R-Illinois) worked together to craft and introduce a resolution that condemns the “senseless attacks on hospitals and medical personnel in Syria.” Citing reports by the United Nations and independent aid organizations, the congressmen note that the overwhelming majority of attacks against civilians giving or receiving medical treatment were carried out by Syrian and Russian forces. The resolution calls on the sides to cease targeting hospitals and personnel and for the Secretary of State to work with international partners to investigate the violations of international law by Syrian and Russian forces. The resolution was referred to the House Foreign Affairs Committee (HFAC).

H.R. 4478. Rep. Devin Nunes (R-California) introduced a bill to amend the original version of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 (FISA) and to extend Title VII of the law that was added in the FISA Amendments Act of 2008, establishing Section 702 and allowing for certain non-US persons to be targeted abroad for surveillance purposes. Though Nunes enjoys some significant influence as chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, this bill garnered zero cosponsors and it does not appear to have much support. Further, it will compete for adoption with one popular bill that was introduced by Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Virginia) and already passed by the House Judiciary Committee. In addition, another “compromise” version of legislation will be unveiled soon by the Intelligence Committee’s ranking member, Adam Schiff (D-California).

S. 2167. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) introduced a bill this week that, should it be adopted, would require the Secretary of the Department of Treasury to certify aircraft-related transactions between financial institutions, both in the United States and abroad, and Iran. The Secretary of the Treasury would be required to notify Congress of any financial institution’s aircraft-related transactions with Iran, certifying that the transaction will not aid money laundering or terrorist financing efforts by Iran or aid any Iranian individual already blacklisted by the US government. The language of the bill also includes a waiver should the president deem a transaction appropriate for national security reasons. The bill was referred to the Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs for consideration.

Ten Senators Pen Letter to Israeli Prime Minister. On November 29, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-California) headlined a group of Senate Democrats and Independents who penned a letter to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, urging him to terminate plans to demolish homes in two Palestinian villages. Homes in the West Bank villages of Susiya and Khan al-Ahmar have been deemed illegal and ordered demolished, though the Israeli government has, on multiple occasions, requested that the Israeli High Court of Justice delay enforcing evacuation orders. The senators cited this forced removal of Palestinians and the Israeli government’s dramatic expansion of settlement activity in the occupied West Bank when telling the prime minister that they fear for the viability of the two-state solution and “Israel’s future as a Jewish democracy.” Four of the Senate’s eight Jewish members were signatories to the letter.

2) Hearings

The Latest Developments in Saudi Arabia and Lebanon. On November 29, the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Middle East and North Africa held a hearing to “examine the latest developments” in the two countries and discern “how the [United States] can work with [its] allies in the region to counter Iran, promote stability, and secure US interests.” Elliott Abrams of the Council on Foreign Relations, Dr. Paul Salem of the Middle East Institute, and Dr. Tamara Cofman Wittes of the Brookings Institution testified before the committee.

During their opening remarks, members expressed their concerns about both the recent developments in Lebanon and Saudi Arabia and the long-term trends in the region. Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Florida) warned that the United States must be wary of supporting the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF)—an institution generally viewed as a cudgel against the non-state terrorist group Hezbollah—because of its ties to the group. In fact, she even suggested that the United States should end all aid to the LAF until it can demonstrate a complete severance of ties to Hezbollah. The ranking member, Rep. Ted Deutch (D-Florida) echoed many of the concerns about stability and security in Lebanon, but he was much more focused on the problematic trends coming from Saudi Arabia. As Deutch put it, the new administration has given the Saudi crown prince carte blanche, which has resulted in reckless behavior in the region.

The witnesses each touched on separate themes of the hearing. Elliott Abrams was very much in tune with Chairwoman Ros-Lehtinen, arguing that it may not be in the United States’ best interest to be providing aid to the LAF, especially when it is a model that has proven to be “failing.” Salem acknowledged the problems Hezbollah presents in Lebanon, but argued that the United States should support Lebanese institutions—mainly Lebanese politicians and government officials—in order to build national sovereignty. Hezbollah is a “long term threat,” he noted, and any effort to remove the group from Lebanon’s internal politics must be calibrated accordingly. In the short term, Salem suggested the United States and its regional partners remove Hezbollah from regional conflict zones, maintain peace at the Lebanon-Israel border, and reduce the group’s influence on the Lebanese state. Going forward, reducing Hezbollah’s power overall will depend on regional developments, Salem argued, such as military conflict with Iran or positive developments in Israeli-Palestinian and/or Israeli-Arab relations, all of which could shore up the chaotic environments in which Hezbollah thrives.

Wittes concluded with an assessment of developments in Saudi Arabia, particularly regarding the country’s security concerns with Iran. She noted that the kingdom’s single greatest security threat has long been Iran’s subversion of regional sovereign states. In order to push back against Iran and ease tensions in the region, Wittes told lawmakers that the United States must play a leading role. Building a sustainable anti-Iran coalition requires trust, persistence, dialogue, and an end to regional conflicts, according to Wittes, and the United States must be a leader on all of those fronts. Wittes suggested that the United States perform robust “diplomatic outreach” to Iraq, and to Russia in the case of Syria, and better share intelligence with regional allies in order to push back against Iran. In addition, she suggested that the United States pressure Iran in the United Nations Security Council and convince European allies and China that a stable Middle East is better for global security and that constraining Iranian activity in the region is key to securing stability. Finally, Wittes concluded with suggestions for the United States in supporting Lebanon as its political crisis continues. The United States must remain engaged in supporting Lebanon’s democratic development, she advised, and push for Lebanon to carry out its scheduled parliamentary elections next May.

World Wide Threats: Keeping America Secure. On November 30, the House Homeland Security Committee held a two-panel hearing to review the work being done by the federal government to combat threats like “Islamist” and domestic terrorism and assess the steps Congress must take to support such efforts. Though both panels provided valuable insight, this summary will strictly cover the testimonies of current Trump Administration officials who spoke on current policies toward combatting domestic and foreign terrorist threats. Testifying before the committee were Acting Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Elaine Duke; Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Christopher Wray; and Nicholas Rasmussen, the Director of the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC).

Acting Secretary Duke stated at the outset that the greatest threat to the United States, in terms of terrorist threats, comes from “global Jihadist groups.” To combat that—and the less discussed threat of domestic terrorism—Duke said the DHS is focused on a two-step approach. First, the department has ushered in an integrated approach to combatting threats. There are no longer both “home games” and “away games,” as the Acting Secretary phrased it. Second, Duke said she has instructed the DHS to take a more proactive posture, meaning the department is instituting stricter protocols for how it handles activities like foreign travel and immigration. To this point, Duke said she recommended—and the president subsequently approved—what she described as “tough but tailored” restrictions on travel. The DHS requires foreign governments to provide more data about suspected terrorists trying to enter the United States and the administration’s new approach bars entry of people from “dangerous countries” that do not cooperate to the extent necessary.

Wray, for his part, lauded the efforts of the FBI and told the committee that it is crucial that they and their colleagues on the Hill reauthorize the soon-to-expire FISA Section 702 authorities for conducting foreign surveillance. Rasmussen concluded with an analysis of the current state of terrorism threats toward the United States. The United States remains under threat from a weakened but resilient Islamic State (IS), Rasmussen said, and an evolved al-Qaeda. IS is less capable of directing terrorist attacks abroad, Rasmussen noted, but he said the organization has shifted to “inspiring” more attacks and mobilizing potential terrorists remotely. Al-Qaeda is still a top-tier threat, Rasmussen warned, and noted that the NCTC has observed an increase in the threat of aviation-based attacks—a threat that is as high as any other time since the September 11 attacks.

3) Personnel

Possible Presidential Candidate Visits Israel, West Bank. On November 20, the potential 2020 presidential candidate, Sen. Kamala Harris (D-California), quietly led a congressional delegation visit to Israel and the West Bank. While in Israel, Harris met with Prime Minister Netanyahu to discuss US-Israeli cooperation in water management and agriculture. In the West Bank, she visited Al-Quds University and met with Palestinian students. While the Israelis hailed her visit, Palestinian and human rights activists, both there and in the United States, were critical of her “silence” on issues of Palestinian rights. Billed as a champion of women’s and human rights at home, Harris could face criticism from her liberal constituents for her refusal to speak up on behalf of the Palestinians who face travel restrictions and unequal treatment in the occupied territories.

HFAC, Middle East Subcommittee Gets New Member. Chairman Ed Royce (R-California) of the HFAC announced on November 29 that the newest member of the House would be joining the full HFAC and its Subcommittees on the Middle East and North Africa and Europe, Eurasia, and Emerging Threats. Rep. John Curtis (R-Utah) won a special election for the seat left vacant when former Rep. Jason Chaffetz opted to retire. Though well known for his success as mayor of Provo, Utah, Curtis has little to no experience in foreign policy, so it is uncertain what kind of role he will seek within the House foreign policy community.

House, Senate Members Huddle with King Abdullah II. King Abdullah II of Jordan made a trip to Washington in the last week of November. On November 29, the king met with a number of Congress’s top brass, including Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wisconsin) and members of the HFAC on the House side and members of the Senate’s committees on Foreign Relations and Armed Services. Aside from discussing US-Jordan cooperation and Jordan’s own domestic developments, the king spoke at length with lawmakers about developments in the region. He reiterated that the two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict is the only viable option and warned members that moving the US embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem would spark outrage and jeopardize peace talks before they begin.

II. Executive Branch

1) White House

White House Flip Flops on PLO. On November 18, the Trump Administration announced its intent to close the Palestine Liberation Organization’s (PLO) General Delegation in Washington. However, the administration later walked back the decision, announcing it would allow the outfit to remain open—albeit in a limited capacity—for the next 90 days. The crisis between the two sides is new, but the legislation underwriting the core of the issue has been around since the Reagan era. Looking ahead, the crisis seems to have cooled, but it could again become an issue, especially if the administration sees it as an attractive way to pressure the PLO to negotiate with Israel. It is also important to note that the same legislation that sets the rules for the PLO’s General Delegation also dictates whether the United States can provide economic support funds (ESFs) to the Palestinian Authority (PA). Unless the administration straightens out its strategy and issues a waiver to the underwritten law after 90 days, both the General Delegation and economic support to the PA could be jeopardized.

Trump and Sisi Talk. Following Egypt’s deadliest terrorist attack, President Donald Trump held a phone call with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. According to the readout, the president offered his counterpart his condolences for the attack and vowed to continue working closely with the Egyptians to combat terrorism.

White House Expresses Support for Saudis in Yemen. On November 24, the White House released a statement lauding the Saudis for reopening ports in Yemen for the passage of crucial aid that is helping fend off a catastrophic famine. According to the statement, the administration is happy with steps taken by the Saudis and is resolved to stand by the United States’ Gulf Sunni allies against Iran. It is an interesting statement of support from the White House because the responsibility for the humanitarian crisis in Yemen, according to multiple independent nongovernmental groups, is almost solely the fault of the Saudi campaign against Yemeni rebels.

Administration Officials Receive King of Jordan. Prior to meeting with lawmakers on Capitol Hill, King Abdullah II and his envoy sat down with Vice President Mike Pence and members of the administration’s National Security Council (NSC). The White House and its Jordanian counterparts talked about developments in Syria, the fight against IS, bilateral cooperation between the two countries, and developments in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. On the last point, King Abdullah II reportedly warned National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster that if the administration falls short on its goal of ushering in the “ultimate deal,” tensions in the region will escalate drastically.

NSC Confirms Discussing Nuclear Technology with Saudis, Jordanians. During a confirmation hearing for the position of Assistant Secretary of State for International Security and Nonproliferation, current NSC Advisor Christopher Ford confirmed that the Trump Administration has held preliminary talks with both Jordan and Saudi Arabia about a nuclear technology sharing agreement. Though holding these discussions is no new step—the Obama Administration originally discussed the idea with the two allies—alarms are being raised now for fear of the Saudis’ true reasoning behind pursuing a nuclear program. It is true, as the Saudis assert, that a domestic nuclear energy program could help the country move on from its dependence on oil. However, with Saudi-Iranian tensions at an all-time high, senators were very concerned that Saudi Arabia would secure US technology and pursue nuclear weapons.

White House Demurs on Embassy Decision. The time has come for President Trump to decide whether to officially move the US Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem or to sign a six-month waiver foregoing such a move. Though Trump and his aides have long held that it is a question of “when”—not “if”—the move happens, recent reports suggest that the president is still reluctant to make good on the campaign promise. With allies like King Abdullah II of Jordan advising him against the move, White House officials have suggested that Trump may, in fact, sign the waiver but call a press conference to symbolically declare Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Another option reportedly being discussed is to allow Vice President Pence to announce US recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital—contrary to international law and UN resolutions—on his upcoming trip to Israel. Pence announced this week that he will travel to Israel and speak before the Knesset.

Trump to Welcome Libyan Prime Minister. The White House announced that President Trump will welcome the Prime Minister of Libya’s UN-backed Government of National Accord, Fayez al-Sarraj, on December 1. The president is expected to reiterate US support for the Libyan peace process outlined by the United Nations and the two will discuss possibilities for bilateral cooperation in counterterrorism and other areas.

2) State and Defense Department Outreach

The Clock is Ticking on Tillerson. Though Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has been uncharacteristically active over the last couple of weeks, recent media reports suggest that the secretary could soon exit—or be forced out of—his role at the State Department. The move is not altogether surprising, but it comes at a time when Tillerson was seemingly more hands-on than normal. Since November 19, Tillerson has held numerous diplomatic meetings and phone calls, including with the foreign ministers of Qatar and Jordan and he recently welcomed the Bahraini Crown Prince.

State Department Announces Support for Riyadh Opposition Conference. The State Department issued a statement on November 26 in support of the recent Syrian opposition conference held in Riyadh. The idea behind the conference was to bridge the gap between disparate groups that not only oppose the rule of the Assad regime, but often have fought one another. In the runup to UN-backed peace talks in Geneva, the United States appears content to allow the Saudis to lead talks to determine the bargaining position of the Syrian opposition groups.

Mattis Meets with Gulf Allies, Libyan PM. Much like his counterpart at the State Department, Secretary of Defense James Mattis held a number of bilateral meetings with Arab allies over the last two weeks. Mattis met with the Crown Prince of Bahrain and the Libyan Prime Minister. Though Mattis did not attend, his deputy secretary met with the Omani Defense Minister on his visit to the United States.

III. Judicial Branch

Court Convicts Libyan for Role in Benghazi Attack. On November 28, a seven-week trial in a Washington, DC federal court ended with a Libyan man—Ahmed Abu Khattala—convicted on four counts of terrorism. Abu Khattala was a former militia leader who helped orchestrate the September 11, 2012 attacks on US diplomatic outposts in Benghazi, Libya. Abu Khattala is the first to be prosecuted for the crimes and the outcome could illustrate the difficulty of trying those involved in the attacks. Though he was convicted of four counts and faces life in prison, he was acquitted of 14 other charges, including multiple counts of murder.