Washington, Sep 19 (AP/UNB) — President Donald Trump is flexing his executive power to declassify secret documents in the Russia investigation, an extraordinary move he says will ensure that "really bad things" at the FBI are exposed. But the decision, made against the backdrop of Trump's spiraling outrage at the special counsel's Russia investigation, may expose sensitive sources and methods and brush up against privacy law protections, experts say.
The order is likely to further divide the president from the intelligence agencies he oversees and raises new concerns that Trump is disclosing government secrets for his own political gain. Critics of the move say the president has a clear conflict by trying to discredit an investigation in which he himself is a subject.
"This radical policy choice is not being made on traditional policy grounds. It's being made on conflicted grounds," said David Kris, a former Justice Department national security division head. "That's problematic."
The Justice Department says it's begun complying with the order, though it's not clear when the documents might be released. It's also unclear if the multi-agency review now underway might find ways to try to withhold certain information or limit whatever damage, such as outing sources or scaring off would-be ones, that may arise from the release.
Trump and Republican supporters want the records out in hopes they'll reveal law enforcement bias in the early stage of the Russia investigation and prove the probe was opened without good reason.
Democrats say the material is too secret for disclosure and object to any meddling in an ongoing investigation.
In a letter Tuesday to Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and FBI Director Christopher Wray, four top Democrats called Trump's action "a brazen abuse of power."
The letter said, "Any decision by your offices to share this material with the President or his lawyers will violate longstanding Department of Justice policies." It was signed by House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer, and the top Democrats on the House and Senate intelligence committees, Adam Schiff and Mark Warner.
The documents the president ordered declassified include a portion of a secret surveillance application for a former Trump campaign adviser, materials by default treated as highly secret and withheld from public view.
Trump appeared unconcerned Tuesday by the national security implications of the order, tweeting about a supportive congressman and saying, "Really bad things were happening, but they are now being exposed. Big stuff!" At the White House he said he wanted "total transparency," insisting again that the Russia investigation is a "witch hunt."
Trump told The Hill website on Tuesday, "I hope to be able put this up as one of my crowning achievements that I was able to ... expose something that is truly a cancer in our country."
He said he hasn't read the documents he ordered declassified.
In this case, the materials may shed new insight into why federal agents suspected the aide, Carter Page, of being the agent of a foreign power. But it may also identify specific sources of information for the FBI or disclose previously classified information about Russian efforts to interfere with the 2016 presidential election — which remains the center of an ongoing investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller.
"The applications routinely will contain critically sensitive details about the methods and means by which intelligence investigations gather information, including the identities of sources who may well be endangered if their identity becomes public and who certainly will be dis-incentivized from future cooperation as well," said Bobby Chesney, a national security law professor at the University of Texas.
Warrants to monitor the communications of a suspected agent of a foreign power are a common tool in counterterrorism and counterintelligence investigations, but they're applied for before a secret court.
An inspector general may be able to obtain that information during an investigation and a judge may have occasion to review it to settle an evidence dispute, but a target of an application like Page "certainly doesn't get to look at them," Chesney said.
The applications are detailed enough to convince a court that surveillance is appropriate, Kris said, so concern that information from them could be disclosed could "strain the system."
"I don't mean to suggest that the government will start lying to the court. They have an obligation to be candid," said Kris, founder of Culper Partners consulting firm. But "to the extent there is discretion at the margins, if the government fears disclosure, particularly disclosure for political reasons, it will strain the system, and that's not good."
Monday's order was extraordinary but not entirely unprecedented.
Trump made a similar move in February when the White House, over the objections of the FBI, cleared the way for the Republican-led House intelligence committee to release a partisan memo summarizing details from the Page warrant. Democrats later countered with their own memo.
Other materials covered by the order include FBI interviews of a senior Justice Department official and text messages of senior FBI leaders, including fired Director James Comey, involved in the investigation.
William Banks, a Syracuse University national security expert, said that by making the information public, Trump is essentially overruling the decisions of career officials intent on keeping it from foreign intelligence services, terrorist groups and other adversaries.
He said while there's nothing to prevent Trump from releasing the bulk of the information identified by the White House, he may face some problems releasing the Russia-related text messages because of the federal Privacy Act, which governs the type of personal information the government can make public.
"The Privacy Act is a big hurdle here unless Congress takes control of the materials and tries to release them themselves," Banks said.
The FBI earlier released in heavily redacted format 412 pages of surveillance applications and court orders related to Page. Monday's declassification order covers 21 pages of a 101-page June 2017 application to renew the warrant — the last of four filed by the Justice Department. His communications were monitored for nearly a year starting in October 2016.
Experts say the president's authority to unilaterally declassify the records is well-established, though that doesn't make it less unusual.
Though there are other instances of government officials or contractors spilling government secrets, Chesney said, "What's remarkable about this is it's the White House that's doing it."
Kuala Lumpur, Sep 19 (AP/UNB) — Malaysia's government has come under renewed pressure to outlaw child marriages after another case of a child bride surfaced in a rural state, the second in two months.
The New Straits Times newspaper reported that a 15-year-old teenager became the second wife of a 44-year-old Muslim man in northeast Kelantan state. It says the union was approved by the Shariah court with her parents' consent. The case came two months after a Kelantan rubber trader married an 11-year-old girl as his third wife.
Muslim girls under the minimum legal marriage age of 16 can wed with the consent of the Shariah court and their parents.
The case has sparked outrage among rights groups. UNICEF in a statement received Wednesday urged Malaysia to bring legislative change to ban the practice.
Pyongyang, Sep 19 (AP/UNB) — South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un announced a sweeping set of agreements after their second day of talks in Pyongyang on Wednesday that included a promise by Kim to permanently dismantle the North's main nuclear complex if the United States takes corresponding measures, the acceptance of international inspectors to monitor the closing of a key missile test site and launch pad and a vow to work together to host the Summer Olympics in 2032.
Declaring they had made a major step toward peace on the Korean Peninsula, the two leaders were side by side as they announced the joint statement to a group of North and South Korean reporters after a closed-door meeting Wednesday morning.
"We have agreed to make the Korean Peninsula a land of peace that is free from nuclear weapons and nuclear threat," Kim said as he stood by Moon's side at the guesthouse where Moon is staying. "The road to our future will not always be smooth and we may face challenges and trials we can't anticipate. But we aren't afraid of headwinds because our strength will grow as we overcome each trial based on the strength of our nation."
Kim and Moon earlier smiled and chatted as they walked down a hallway and into a meeting room to finalize the joint statement, which also said that the leaders would push for a Korean Peninsula without nuclear weapons and to "eliminate all the danger of war." They agreed that Kim would visit the South in the near future.
The statement caps off the third summit between Kim and Moon, who is under increasing pressure from Washington to find a path forward in its efforts to get Kim to completely — and unilaterally — abandon his nuclear arsenal.
But while containing several tantalizing offers, it appears to fall short of the major steps many in Washington had been looking for — such as a commitment by Pyongyang to provide a list of the North's nuclear facilities, a solid step-by-step timeline or an agreement to allow international inspectors in to assess progress or discover violations.
The question is whether it will be enough for President Donald Trump to pick up where Moon has left off.
Trump has maintained that he and Kim have a solid relationship, and both leaders have expressed interest in a follow-up summit to their meeting in June in Singapore. North Korea has been demanding a declaration formally ending the Korean War, which was stopped in 1953 by a cease-fire, but neither leader mentioned it as they read the joint statement.
In the meantime, however, Moon and Kim made concrete moves of their own to reduce tensions on their border.
According a joint statement signed by the countries' defense chiefs, the two Koreas agreed to establish buffer zones along their land and sea borders to reduce military tensions and prevent accidental clashes. They also agreed to withdraw 11 guard posts from the Demilitarized Zone by December and to establish a no-fly zone above the military demarcation line that bisects the two Koreas that will apply to planes, helicopters and drones.
Though not directly linked to security, the leaders' announcement that they would seek a joint Summer Olympics was a significant move in terms of easing tensions and building trust. It also flows from the North's decision to participate in the Pyeongchang Winter Games in February, which was regarded as a success for both sides.
Other agreements aimed at removing some longstanding irritants from their relations — such as allowing more contact between families divided by the Korean War. Moon also appeared to be making good on his proposals to help build up the North's infrastructure and open cross-border rail links.
Unlike Trump's initial tweets praising the summit, the news brought a quick and negative response from Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, who tweeted he was concerned the visit would undermine efforts by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley to impose "maximum pressure" on Pyongyang.
"While North Korea has stopped testing missiles and nuclear devices, they have NOT moved toward denuclearization," he tweeted.
With the main business of the day over, North Korea was expected to hold a huge mass games spectacle in the evening, with Moon as the special guest.
The North had put the iconic games, which feature tens of thousands of performers dancing and flipping placards in unison to create giant mosaics and slogans, on a back burner for the past several years, but revived them for this month's celebrations of its 70th founding anniversary. In a performance for the anniversary, a giant photo of Moon and Kim shaking hands at their first summit in April was projected onto one side of the stands in Pyongyang's 150,000-seat May Day Stadium.
Kim has gone all out to make Moon's visit a memorable one.
On Tuesday, the first day of the summit, he greeted Moon and his wife at Pyongyang's airport and then rode into town with Moon in an open limousine through streets lined with crowds of North Koreans, who cheered and waved the flag of their country and a blue-and-white flag that symbolizes Korean unity.
The summit talks began at the ruling Workers' Party headquarters where Kim and Moon were joined by two of their top deputies — spy chief Suh Hoon and presidential security director Chung Eui-yong for Moon, and for Kim, his sister, Kim Yo Jong, and senior Workers' Party official Kim Yong Chol, according to Moon's office.
At the start of their meeting Tuesday, Kim thanked Moon for brokering the June summit with Trump.
"It's not too much to say that it's Moon's efforts that arranged a historic North Korea-U.S. summit. Because of that, the regional political situation has been stabilized and more progress on North Korea-U.S. ties is expected," Kim said, according to South Korean media pool reports and Moon's office.
Moon responded by expressing his own thanks to Kim for making a "bold decision" in a New Year's speech to open a new era of detente and send a delegation to the South Korean Winter Olympics in February.
Moscow, Sep 19 (AP/UNB) — A Russian reconnaissance aircraft was shot down by Syria forces responding to an Israeli airstrike, killing all 15 people aboard, in what President Vladimir Putin said Tuesday was "a chain of tragic accidental circumstances."
The downing of the Il-20 highlighted the dangers posed by the conflicting interests of various powers in the crowded skies over Syria and threatened the close security ties between Russia and Israel.
In an effort to maintain that relationship, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu quickly called Putin to express sorrow over the death of the plane's crew, blamed the plane's loss squarely on Syria and offered to send Israel's air force chief to Moscow to share information about the incident.
The Russian military said the plane was hit 35 kilometers (22 miles) offshore late Monday night as it was returning to the Russian air base in Syria.
The incident triggered testy exchanges of blame between Israel and Russia.
The Israeli military said its fighter jets were targeting a Syrian military facility involved in providing weapons for Iran's proxy Hezbollah militia, noting that it warned Russia of the coming raid in line with de-confliction agreements. It said the Syrian army launched the missiles that hit the plane when the Israeli jets were already inside Israeli airspace.
But the Russian Defense Ministry said the Israeli warning came less than a minute before the strike, leaving the Russian aircraft in the line of fire. It pointedly accused the Israeli military of deliberately using the Russian plane as a cover to dodge the Syrian defenses and threatened to retaliate.
"The Israeli pilots were using the Russian aircraft as a shield and pushed it into the line of fire of the Syrian air defense," said Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu called his Israeli counterpart, Avigdor Lieberman, to declare that "the Israeli side bears full responsibility" for the plane's downing and to warn that Russia "reserves the right to retaliate."
But Putin took a more cautious tone, describing the incident as "a chain of tragic accidental circumstances." At the same time, he said Russia will respond by "taking additional steps to protect our servicemen and assets in Syria."
"It will be the steps that everyone will notice," he said without elaboration.
Netanyahu, who has maintained warm personal ties with Putin and frequently traveled to Russia for Syria-focused talks, noted the need for Russia and Israel to continue coordinating their action in Syria. At the same time, he emphasized Israel would not tolerate the Iranian military presence in Syria.
Putin told Netanyahu that the Israeli raid violated Syria's sovereignty and breached the Russian-Israeli de-confliction agreement. He urged the Israeli side "not to allow such situations to happen again," according to the Kremlin.
Israel has refrained from taking sides in the Syrian civil war, but it has carried out scores of airstrikes against archenemy Iran and its Shiite proxy Hezbollah.
Israel has acknowledged attacking Iranian targets some 200 times, and Israel and Russia have maintained a hotline to prevent clashes between their forces in Syria. Israeli military officials have previously praised its effectiveness.
"Until now, Russia's armed forces have granted Israeli jets the freedom to strike targets in Syria at will, on the condition that a sufficiently early warning is provided to Russia," said Charles Lister, a Syria expert with the Washington-based Middle East Institute. "The glue binding this gentleman's agreement — the Putin-Netanyahu personal relationship — will likely tide this issue over for the time being."
Moscow has played a delicate diplomatic game of maintaining friendly relations with both Israel and Iran. In July, Moscow said that it struck a deal with Tehran to keep its fighters 85 kilometers (53 miles) from the Golan Heights to accommodate Israeli security concerns.
In response to Israeli worries, Russia also has shelved plans to arm Syria with sophisticated air defense assets, such as the long-range S-300 systems that could pose a significant threat to Israeli aircraft.
The downing of the plane could change that.
Sima Shine, a former senior Mossad official and ex-deputy director-general at Israel's Strategic Affairs Ministry, told Israel Army Radio that the incident could have "strategic implications" for Israel's freedom of action in Syria.
"I think it will impose very serious restriction on Israel's freedom of activity," she said.
Some Russian lawmakers and retired military officers called for a forceful response, saying Russia should provide Syria with the S-300 air defense systems and other sophisticated weapons to prevent any further strikes.
Shoigu, the defense minister, warned his Israeli counterpart that "we won't leave such action without response."
Russia's dramatic entry into the Syrian civil war in September 2015 to support Syrian President Bashar Assad after a year of airstrikes by the U.S. and its allies against the Islamic State group increased the possibility of dangerous confrontations over Syria.
The downing of a Russian warplane by a Turkish jet in November 2015 put Moscow and Ankara on the verge of military confrontation, but they later negotiated a series of de-escalation agreements for Syria together with Iran.
"The implementation of de-escalation across Syria a year ago introduced a new reality to Syria, in which foreign states are now actively competing to assert their own influence over overlapping territorial space," Lister said. "Though appropriate measures have been put in place to manage this, the risk of state-on-state conflagrations like we saw overnight has never been higher. With a meaningful political settlement in Syria an increasingly far-fetched objective, this could well be the new reality we live with for years to come."
The U.S. also expressed sorrow over the Russian deaths, with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo saying it was a reminder of the need to find "permanent, peaceful, and political resolutions to the many overlapping conflicts in the region and the danger of tragic miscalculation in Syria's crowded theater of operations."
Before the latest incident, Russia had lost at least seven warplanes and seven combat helicopters in Syria and also had seen dozens of troops killed in ground combat.
And there have been other Syria-related deaths of Russians.
A Russian passenger plane carrying tourists from Egypt's Sharm el-Sheikh resort crashed over the Sinai in October 2015, killing all 224 people aboard. The Sinai affiliate of the Islamic State group said it blew up the plane with a bomb smuggled on board.
And in December 2016, a passenger jet carrying members of the Red Army Choir to a New Year's concert at a Russian military base in Syria crashed in the Black Sea minutes after takeoff from Sochi in southern Russia, killing all 92 people aboard. The investigation of that crash is continuing, but officials have indicated that pilot error was the likely cause.
Washington, Sep 19 (AP/UNB) — The Trump administration on Tuesday released a new biodefense strategy that it said takes a more comprehensive approach to preparing the nation for deliberate biological attacks and natural outbreaks of infectious disease.
The goal of the strategy, which was required by Congress, is to more effectively prevent, prepare for and respond to biological threats, which the document said are "among the most serious threats" facing the U.S. and the world.
"Biological threats emanate from many sources, and they know no borders," Trump said in a written statement. "They have great potential to disrupt the economy, exact a toll on human life, and tear at the very fabric of society."
Trump said his administration's plan takes a "new direction" with a more coordinated, centralized approach based on lessons learned from past incidents such as the West Africa Ebola epidemic of 2014.
The Department of Health and Human Services is designated as the lead agency in coordinating federal biodefense actions and assessing whether the plan is working.
A privately sponsored group that has studied biodefense issues since 2014 applauded the White House's strategy. The Blue Ribbon Study Panel on Biodefense has warned that the U.S. is dangerously vulnerable to a large-scale biological attack and has urged Washington to develop a more comprehensive strategy.
"The White House made a great start with the implementation plan they included with the strategy," said Tom Ridge, the former Pennsylvania governor who is co-chairman of the Blue Ribbon Study Panel. "We look forward to the White House assigning responsibilities for each element of this plan to specific federal departments and agencies, and establishing timelines for their completion."
At a White House briefing, John Bolton, the president's national security adviser, told reporters there is "no particular immediate threat" of biological attack.
Alex Azar, the secretary of Health and Human Services, told reporters the threats are "very real and they're growing." He said the strategy is the first to include naturally occurring threats like the Ebola virus.
Previous approaches focused on the threat of terrorists unleashing deadly germs or a nation such as North Korea launching a biological attack.