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Trump administration may expand drone strikes, curb aids to crack down on Pakistan-based militants

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Trump administration may expand drone strikes, curb aids to crack down on Pakistan-based militants

Posted on 20 June 2017 by GGS News

Washington : President Donald Trump`s administration appears ready to harden its approach toward Pakistan to crack down on Pakistan-based militants launching attacks in neighboring Afghanistan, US officials tell Reuters.

Potential Trump administration responses being discussed include expanding US drone strikes, redirecting or withholding some aid to Pakistan and perhaps eventually downgrading Pakistan`s status as a major non-NATO ally, the officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Some US officials, however, are skeptical of the prospects for success, arguing that years of previous US efforts to curb Pakistan`s support for militant groups have failed, and that already strengthening US ties to India, Pakistan`s arch-enemy, undermine chances of a breakthrough with Islamabad.

US officials say they seek greater cooperation with Pakistan, not a rupture in ties, once the administration finishes a regional review of the strategy guiding the 16-year-old war in Afghanistan.

Precise actions have yet to be decided.

The White House and Pentagon declined to comment on the review before its completion. Pakistan`s embassy in Washington did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

“The United States and Pakistan continue to partner on a range of national security issues,” Pentagon spokesman Adam Stump said.

But the discussions alone suggest a shift toward a more assertive approach to address safe havens in Pakistan that have been blamed for in part helping turn Afghanistan`s war into an intractable conflict.

Experts on America`s longest war argue that militant safe havens in Pakistan have allowed Taliban-linked insurgents a place to plot deadly strikes in Afghanistan and regroup after ground offensives.

Although long mindful of Pakistan, the Trump administration in recent weeks has put more emphasis on the relationship with Islamabad in discussions as it hammers out a the regional strategy to be presented to Trump by mid-July, nearly six months after he took office, one official said.

“We`ve never really fully articulated what our strategy towards Pakistan is. The strategy will more clearly say what we want from Pakistan specifically,” the U.S. official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Other US officials warn of divisions within the government about the right approach and question whether any mix of carrots and sticks can get Islamabad to change its behavior. At the end of the day, Washington needs a partner, even if an imperfect one, in nuclear-armed Pakistan, they say.

The United States is again poised to deploy thousands more troops in Afghanistan, an acknowledgment that US-backed forces are not winning and Taliban militants are resurgent.

Without more pressure on militants within Pakistan who target Afghanistan, experts say additional US troop deployments will fail to meet their ultimate objective: to pressure the Taliban to eventually negotiate peace.

“I believe there will be a much harder US line on Pakistan going forward than there has been in the past,” Hamdullah Mohib, the Afghan ambassador to the United States, told Reuters, without citing specific measures under review.

Kabul has long been critical of Pakistan`s role in Afghanistan.

Pakistan fiercely denies allowing any militants safe haven on its territory. It bristles at US claims that Pakistan`s spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) directorate, has ties to Haqqani network militants blamed for some of the deadliest attacks in Afghanistan.

“What Pakistan says is that we are already doing a lot and that our plate is already full,” a senior Pakistani government source told Reuters, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The source doubted the Trump administration would press too hard, saying: “They don’t want to push Pakistan to abandon their war against terrorism.”

Pakistani officials point towards the toll militancy has taken on the country. Since 2003, almost 22,000 civilians and nearly 7,000 Pakistani security forces have been killed as a result of militancy, according to the South Asia Terrorism Portal, which tracks violence.

Experts say Pakistan`s policy towards Afghanistan is also driven in part by fears that India will gain influence in Afghanistan.

Is Pakistan ally?
Nuclear-armed Pakistan won the status as a major non-NATO ally in 2004 from the George Bush administration, in what was at the time seen in part as recognition of its importance in the US battle against al Qaeda and Taliban insurgents.

The status is mainly symbolic, allowing limited benefits such as giving Pakistan faster access to surplus US military hardware.

Some US officials and experts on the region scoff at the title.

“Pakistan is not an ally. It’s not North Korea or Iran. But it’s not an ally,” said Bruce Riedel, a Pakistan expert at the Brookings Institution.

But yanking the title would be seen by Pakistan as a major blow.

“The Pakistanis would take that very seriously because it would be a slap at their honor,” said a former US official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Lisa Curtis, senior director for South and Central Asia at the National Security Council, co-authored a report with Husain Haqqani, Pakistan`s former ambassador to Washington, in which they recommended the Trump administration warn Pakistan the status could be revoked in six months.

“Thinking of Pakistan as an ally will continue to create problems for the next administration as it did for the last one,” said the February report.

It was unclear how seriously the Trump administration was considering the proposal.

The growing danger to Afghanistan from suspected Pakistan-based militants was underscored by a devastating May 31 truck bomb that killed more than 80 people and wounded 460 in Afghanistan`s capital, Kabul.

Afghanistan`s main intelligence agency said the attack – one of the deadliest in memory in Kabul – had been carried out by the Haqqani network with assistance from Pakistan, a charge Islamabad denies.

Washington believes the strikes appeared to be the work of the Haqqani network, US officials told Reuters.

US frustration over the Haqqani`s presence in Pakistan has been building for years. The United States designated the Haqqani network as a terrorist organization in 2012. US Navy Admiral Mike Mullen, then the top US military officer, told Congress in 2011 that the Haqqani network was a “veritable arm” of the ISI.

The potential US pivot to a more assertive approach would be sharply different than the approach taken at the start of the Obama administration, when US officials sought to court Pakistani leaders, including Army chief General Ashfaq Kayani.

David Sedney, who served as Obama`s deputy assistant secretary of defense for Afghanistan, Pakistan and Central Asia from 2009 to 2013, said the attempt to turn Islamabad into a strategic partner was a “disaster.”

“It didn`t affect Pakistan`s behavior one bit. In fact, I would argue it made Pakistan`s behavior worse,” Sedney said.

More drones, Cash cut-off
Pakistan has received more than USD 33 billion in US assistance since 2002, including more than $14 billion in so-called Coalition Support Funds (CSF), a US Defense Department program to reimburse allies that have incurred costs in supporting counter-insurgency operations.

It is an important form of foreign currency for the nuclear-armed country and one that is getting particularly close scrutiny during the Trump administration review.

Last year, the Pentagon decided not to pay Pakistan USD 300 million in CSF funding after then-US Secretary of Defense Ash Carter declined to sign authorization that Pakistan was taking adequate action against the Haqqani network.

US officials said the Trump administration was discussing withholding at least some assistance to Pakistan.

Curtis` report also singled out the aid as a target.

But US aid cuts could cede even more influence to China, which already has committed nearly USD 60 billion in investments in Pakistan.

Another option under review is broadening a drone campaign to penetrate deeper into Pakistan to target Haqqani fighters and other militants blamed for attacks in Afghanistan, US officials and a Pakistan expert said.

“Now the Americans (will be) saying, you aren`t taking out our enemies, so therefore we are taking them out ourselves,” the Pakistan expert, who declined to be identified, said.

Pakistan`s army chief of staff last week criticised “unilateral actions” such as drone strikes as “counterproductive and against (the) spirit of ongoing cooperation and intelligence sharing being diligently undertaken by Pakistan”.

Reuters |

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North Korea tour firms mull ban on Americans after Otto Warmbier death

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North Korea tour firms mull ban on Americans after Otto Warmbier death

Posted on 20 June 2017 by GGS News

Beijing : The death of US student Otto Warmbier following his incarceration in North Korea has shaken tour companies catering to thrill seekers, with several reconsidering whether to take Americans to the reclusive state.

Warmbier, 22, died Monday after being medically evacuated to the United States last week suffering from severe brain damage, with US President Donald Trump blaming Pyongyang`s “brutal regime” for his plight.

Young Pioneer Tours, the China-based travel agency that took Warmbier to North Korea, said in a Facebook post that it would no longer allow US citizens on its trips.
Three other Western travel companies also issued statements saying they were reviewing whether to take Americans on future North Korean tours.

“We have been struggling to process the result,” said Young Pioneer Tours, which advertises the North as “probably one of the safest places on Earth to visit”.

The University of Virginia student was arrested at the airport as he was leaving Pyongyang in January last year and sentenced at a show trial to 15 years of hard labour for stealing a political poster from a hotel.

“There had not been any previous detainment in North Korea that has ended with such tragic finality,” the company said.

The agency, founded in 2008 by a British expat, came under fire after Warmbier was flown home in a coma following a flurry of secret diplomatic negotiations between Washington and Pyongyang.

“They advertise it`s the safest trip ever and, you know, it`s the one your mother wouldn`t want you to go on. But what they do is they provide fodder for the North Koreans and my son happened to become fodder for the North Koreans,” his father Fred Warmbier said last week.

Tourists wanting to travel to the North must go with a tour company. Americans are required to fly to Pyongyang from Beijing, while other nationalities are allowed to go by train. But the US State Department strongly warns Americans against travelling there.Adam Pitt, a Briton who travelled with Young Pioneer Tours to North Korea in 2013, told AFP he was given “very little warning” about the potential risks of going to the North.

“It became apparent very early on in the trip that the culture was very much what you`d expect to find on a binge-drinking destination in the Mediterranean,” said Pitt, highlighting “lewd jokes” and “all-night drinking” by members of his group.

But the company, which promises to take adventurous travellers to destinations such as Chernobyl and Iran for “as cheap as possible”, has a five-star rating on TripAdvisor and several posts on Facebook praised it.

Emails and calls to Young Pioneer Tours` office in the central city of Xian and mobile numbers went unanswered. Several thousand international tourists are thought to travel to North Korea every year, as well as tens of thousands of Chinese travellers.

Young Pioneer is one of a handful of firms that cater to the international market, offering activities including scuba diving and cycling in one of the world`s most impoverished countries.

China-based Koryo Tours, which has been going to North Korea since 1993 and takes about 2,000 tourists a year, said the “devastating tragedy” had prompted it to reconsider taking US citizens to the North.

UK-based Lupine Travel managing director Dylan Harris told AFP that the company which takes in 600 travellers annually was also reconsidering whether to cater to Americans, “but for all other nationalities there will be no change”.

Uri Tours, which is based in the United States and has an office in Shanghai, said it was “reviewing” its position.

The North claimed Warmbier fell into a coma soon after he was sentenced last year.

Medical tests carried out in the United States dispute North Korea`s claim that he had contracted botulism but the cause of his brain injury remain unclear.

Three more US citizens are currently being held by the North. Two were teachers at a Pyongyang university funded by overseas Christian groups, and the third is a Korean-American pastor who was accused of espionage for the South.


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US warplane downs Syrian Army in Raqqa province

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US warplane downs Syrian Army in Raqqa province

Posted on 19 June 2017 by GGS News

Amman : Washington: A US warplane shot down a Syrian Army jet on Sunday in the southern Raqqa countryside, with Washington saying the jet had dropped bombs near US-backed forces and Damascus saying the plane was downed while flying a mission against Islamic State militants.

A Syrian army statement released on Syrian state television said the plane crashed and the pilot was missing in the first such downing of a Syrian jet by the United States since the start of the conflict in 2011.

The army statement said it took place on Sunday afternoon near a village called Rasafah.

The “flagrant attack was an attempt to undermine the efforts of the army as the only effective force capable with its allies … in fighting terrorism across its territory,” the Syrian army said.

“This comes at a time when the Syrian army and its allies were making clear advances in fighting the Daesh (Islamic State) terrorist group,” it added.

The U.S. Central Command later issued a statement saying the Syrian plane was downed “in collective self-defense of Coalition-partnered forces,” identified as fighters of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) near Tabqah.

It said that “pro-Syrian regime forces” had earlier attacked an SDF-held town south of Tabqa and wounded a number of fighters, driving them from the town.

Coalition aircraft in a show of force stopped the initial advance. When a Syrian army SU-22 jet later dropped bombs near the U.S.-backed forces, it was immediately shot down by a U.S. F/A-18E Super Hornet, the statement said.

Before it downed the plane, the coalition had “contacted its Russian counterparts by telephone via an established “de-confliction line” to de-escalate the situation and stop the firing.”

The coalition does “not seek to fight the Syrian regime, Russian or pro-regime forces” but would not “hesitate to defend itself or its “partnered forces from any threat,” the statement said.

The U.S.-led coalition has in recent weeks escalated its aerial bombing campaign in northern Syria and Raqqa province. U.S.-backed forces have encircled the city of Raqqa and captured several districts from the militants.

The Syrian army, which has been taking territory from retreating Islamic State militants in the eastern Aleppo countryside, has moved into Raqqa province and seized back some oil fields and villages that had been under the militants` control for almost three years.

An SDF official told Reuters the Syrian army had been engaged in skirmishes in recent days with U.S.-backed forces near the town of Maskaneh close to the borders of Raqqa province, much of which is now held by U.S.-backed groups fighting Islamic State.

The Syrian army backed by Iranian-backed militias has also been in competition in southeastern Syria with U.S.-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA) rebels who are also trying to recapture territory from Islamic State.

On several occasions in recent weeks, warplanes of the U.S.-led coalition have also struck pro-government forces to prevent them advancing from a U.S.-controlled garrison in southeastern Syria at a spot where the country`s borders join with Iraq and Jordan.

Washington also described those strikes as self-defense.

Reuters |

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Qatar signs $12 bn deal to buy F-15 jets from US

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Qatar signs $12 bn deal to buy F-15 jets from US

Posted on 15 June 2017 by GGS News

Doha : Qatar`s Ministry of Defense said on Wednesday the country signed a deal to buy F-15 fighter jets from the United States for USD 12 billion.

The deal was completed despite the Gulf country being criticised recently by US President Donald Trump for supporting terrorism.

US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and representatives from Qatar were set to meet Wednesday to seal the agreement, a source familiar with the deal told Reuters. Bloomberg News reported the deal was for 36 jets.The sale will increase security cooperation and interoperability between the US and Qatar, the Pentagon said in an emailed statement on Wednesday.
Defense Secretary Mattis and Qatari Minister of State for Defense Affairs Khalid al-Attiyah also discussed the current state of operations against the ISIS and the importance of de-escalating tensions so all partners in the gulf region can focus on next steps in meeting common goals, the Pentagon added.

In November, the United States approved possible sale of up to 72 F-15QA aircraft to Qatar for USD 21.1 billion. Boeing Co is the prime contractor on the fighter jet sale to the Middle East nation.

Boeing declined to comment.

Trump recently accused Qatar of being a “high-level” sponsor of terrorism, potentially hindering the US Department of State`s efforts to ease heightening tensions and a blockade of the Gulf nation by Arab states and others.


Reuters |

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North Korea fires volley of cruise missiles into Japan Sea

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North Korea fires volley of cruise missiles into Japan Sea

Posted on 08 June 2017 by GGS News

Seoul : North Korea launched a series of what appeared to be “surface-to-ship” cruise missiles on Thursday, South Korea’s defence ministry said, in what would be the latest in a string of tests in defiance of UN sanctions.

“North Korea fired multiple unidentified projectiles, assumed to be surface-to-ship missiles, this morning from the vicinity of Wonsan, Gangwon Province,” the ministry said.

Seoul has stepped up surveillance against possible threats, it added.
This would be the fourth missile test by the nuclear-armed regime in less than five weeks, as Pyongyang continues to defy UN warnings and US threats of possible military action.

The UN Security Council last Friday unanimously adopted a US-drafted resolution imposing new targeted sanctions on a handful of North Korean officials and entities, in response to a series of ballistic missile tests this year that are banned under UN resolutions.

However, North Korea on Sunday slammed the latest UN sanctions as “mean” and vowed to press ahead with its missile and nuclear weapons programmes.

Professor Yang Moo-Jin of the University of North Korean Studies told AFP: “North Korea has been stepping up missile tests … in order to project an image to the world that international sanctions can never bring it to its knees.

“It is also expressing displeasure of the arrival of a US nuclear submarine in South Korean”.

The 6,900-ton USS Cheyenne, whose home port is Pearl Harbor, arrived in the South Korea port of Busan Tuesday.

The US has stepped up its muscle-flexing in recent months in response to what it sees as aggressive shows of strength by North Korea.

Two US aircraft carriers and their escort vessels have carried out naval maneuvers in the Sea of Japan within the last two weeks in a show of force directed at Pyongyang, the US military has said.

Early last month, the North test-fired what appeared to be its longest-range ballistic missile to date, in a bid to bring the US mainland within reach.

The North has carried out two atomic tests and dozens of missile launches since the beginning of last year in its quest to develop a missile capable of delivering a nuclear warhead to the continental United States — something President Donald Trump has vowed “won’t happen”.

The US military “successfully intercepted an intercontinental ballistic missile target” in a test conducted amid concerns over the North’s weapons program, it said.

The North says it needs nuclear weapons to forestall the threat of a US attack.

China, the reclusive regime’s sole major ally, has made it clear that a push for talks — and not more sanctions — is its priority.

But the US has said it is willing to enter into talks only if the North halts its missile and nuclear tests.

Many analysts doubt that the North has developed an ICBM or a nuclear warhead small enough to fit atop a missile.

But most agree that the country has made significant progress under the young leader, who took power after the death of his father and longtime ruler, Kim Jong-Il, in December 2011.


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US Navy ship sails near South China Sea reef claimed by Beijing: US official

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US Navy ship sails near South China Sea reef claimed by Beijing: US official

Posted on 25 May 2017 by GGS News

District of Columbia : A US Navy ship has sailed in disputed South China Sea waters near a reef claimed by Beijing, a US official said.

The USS Dewey sailed “less than 12 nautical miles” from Mischief Reef, part of the the Spratly Islands, in a “freedom of navigation operation,” the official said.

It is Washington`s first such exercise under the administration of Donald Trump.



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Donald Trump says he’s ‘very close’ to naming an FBI director

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Donald Trump says he’s ‘very close’ to naming an FBI director

Posted on 19 May 2017 by GGS News

Washington : President Donald Trump says he is “very close” to naming a new FBI director.

An announcement could come today, the soft deadline Trump set for himself. The president departs Friday on his inaugural overseas trip, a four-country, five-stop journey tour of the Middle East and Europe that will keep him out of the country for more than a week.

“We’re very close to an FBI director,” Trump said Thursday when asked about the search during an Oval Office appearance with Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos. He said an announcement could come “soon” and that former Sen Joe Lieberman was among his top candidates.
Lieberman was among four candidates Trump interviewed at the White House this week. The former Connecticut senator flashed a thumbs-up as he left the White House on Wednesday after meeting with Trump and said they had a “good meeting.”
Trump also met with former Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating; Richard McFeely, a former top FBI official; and acting FBI director Andrew McCabe.

Trump needs a new FBI director because he fired James Comey last week, an unexpected move that drew bipartisan criticism. Comey was overseeing the FBI’s investigation into Russia’s role in the presidential election, including ties between Russian government officials and Trump associates.

In an attempt to quell the furor over Comey’s ouster, the Justice Department this week hired former FBI Director Robert Mueller as a special counsel to oversee the investigation. Trump has denounced the probe as a “witch hunt.”

The Senate must confirm Trump’s candidate for the FBI job.

Word of Lieberman’s standing in the candidate search drew a mixed reaction from Capitol Hill, with Senate Republicans praising the Democrat turned independent, and Democrats seeming less than enthused about their former colleague.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., called Lieberman a “pillar of credibility.” Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, the No. 2 Republican in the Senate, said Lieberman “may be the only potential nominee that could get 100 votes that I know of. Everybody likes and respects Joe Lieberman.”

But several Democratic senators said during a caucus lunch Thursday that they would not support Lieberman, according to a person familiar with the meeting who declined to be identified because the lunch was private.

Among their concerns was Lieberman’s past praise of Michael Flynn, Trump’s first national security adviser, who was fired in February after misleading officials about his talks with Russian officials. Flynn has figured prominently in the FBI investigation into Russia and the election.

AP |


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China says willing to put South Korea ties back on track, urges THAAD resolution

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China says willing to put South Korea ties back on track, urges THAAD resolution

Posted on 19 May 2017 by GGS News

Beijing : China wants to put ties with South Korea back on a “normal track”, President Xi Jinping said on Friday, but Beijing also urged Seoul to respect its concerns and resolve tensions over the deployment of a US anti-missile system that it opposes.
Relations between Beijing and Seoul, strained by disagreement over South Korea`s hosting of the US Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system, have taken on a more conciliatory tone with the election earlier this month of President Moon Jae-in.

Xi told Moon`s representative Lee Hae-chan on Friday that his visit showed the importance the new South Korean leader attached to relations with Beijing.
“China, too, pays great attention to the bilateral ties,” Xi said in comments in front of reporters in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing.
“We`re willing to work with South Korea to preserve the hard-won results, properly handle disputes, put China-South Korea relations back onto a normal track and benefit both peoples on the basis of mutual understanding and mutual respect,” he said.

Lee gave Xi a hand-written letter from the popular, liberal Moon, who easily won election earlier this month to replace Park Geun-hye, who was ousted in a corruption scandal.

“President Moon said he hopes I`d also pass on his gratitude to you for your message of congratulation and the telephone call after he was elected,” Lee said, before reporters were asked to leave the room.

According to the official Xinhua news agency, Xi told Lee: “China is willing to strengthen communication with the new South Korean government… (and) continue to push for the denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula.”

In a separate meeting with Lee on Friday, China`s top diplomat Yang Jiechi said China “hopes that South Korea can respect China`s major concerns (and) appropriately resolve the THAAD issue,” Xinhua reported.

Reuters |


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Former FBI chief Robert Mueller appointed to probe Trump-Russia ties

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Former FBI chief Robert Mueller appointed to probe Trump-Russia ties

Posted on 18 May 2017 by GGS News

Washington : The US Department of Justice has appointed former FBI chief as special counsel to oversee the investigation of alleged Russian efforts to affect the 2016 election in favour of the US President Donald Trump.

Robert Mueller, 72, is a Vietnam veteran and former US attorney who ran the FBI from 2001-2013, Efe reported on Thursday.

The appointment was announced by Deputy Attorney General Rod J Rosenstein, who has authority over the Russia probe due to the decision of Attorney General Jeff Sessions` decision to recuse himself because of his role in the Trump campaign.
“My decision is not a finding that crimes have been committed or that any prosecution is warranted. I have made no such determination,” Rosenstein said.

“What I have determined is that based upon the unique circumstances, the public interest requires me to place this investigation under the authority of a person who exercises a degree of independence from the normal chain of command,” he said.

Rosenstein is one of the few senior figures in the Trump administration to enjoy the confidence of both Republican and Democratic lawmakers.

“Special Counsel Mueller will have all appropriate resources to conduct a thorough and complete investigation, and I am confident that he will follow the facts, apply the law and reach a just result,” the deputy attorney general said.

Mueller has agreed to resign from his private law firm to allay concerns about potential conflicts of interest.

The naming of Mueller as special counsel comes a week after Trump abruptly fired the man who succeeded him as FBI director, James Comey.

While the official announcement of Comey`s dismissal cited his handling of the investigation into Hillary Clinton`s use of a private e-mail server during her 2009-2013 tenure as secretary of state, Democrats accused Trump of seeking to short-circuit the probe of possible collusion between his team and the Russian government.

Senators plan to question Rosenstein about Comey`s firing when the deputy attorney general testifies Thursday in a closed hearing.


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Israel provided intelligence Donald Trump shared with Russians: Report

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Israel provided intelligence Donald Trump shared with Russians: Report

Posted on 17 May 2017 by GGS News

Washington : The classified intelligence US President Donald Trump divulged to Russian officials last week was provided by Israel, a media report said on Wednesday.

“The revelation adds a potential diplomatic complication to an episode that has renewed questions about how the White House handles sensitive intelligence,” The New York Times said.

The White House refused to comment on the report.However, Israel came out in support of the White House.

“Israel has full confidence in our intelligence-sharing relationship with the United States and looks forward to deepening that relationship in the years ahead under President Trump,” Israeli Ambassador to the US, Ron Dermer, said in a statement to The New York Times.

US National Security Advisor Lt General HR McMaster asserted that Trump’s sharing of information with Russia did not risk national security.However, Israel came out in support of the White House.

“Israel has full confidence in our intelligence-sharing relationship with the United States and looks forward to deepening that relationship in the years ahead under President Trump,” Israeli Ambassador to the US, Ron Dermer, said in a statement to The New York Times.

US National Security Advisor Lt General HR McMaster asserted that Trump’s sharing of information with Russia did not risk national security.


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