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We don’t know what Trump told the Russians — because it’s too secret for public consumption. We do know that Syria has a secret crematorium to disappear Assad’s dead.
Where Bashar al-Assad burns the people he kills
- In a press briefing Monday, acting Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Stuart Jones — a career foreign service officer who's served as ambassador to Iraq and Jordan — presented newly declassified satellite evidence suggesting that the Syrian government has built a crematorium to dispose of bodies at its notorious Saydnaya prison complex, outside Damascus. [NYT / Gardiner Harris and Anne Barnard]
- If Saydnaya sounds familiar, that’s probably due to a February report from Amnesty International that estimated that anywhere from 5,000 to 13,000 people have been executed there since the beginning of the Syrian civil war in 2011. Deaths due to disease or malnutrition were common, and guards torture inmates by withholding water, beating them with electrical cables and belts made of cut-up tank tracks, and forcing prisoners to rape each other. Prisoners are typically executed by hanging, after being blindfolded and told they’re going to a “good place.” [Vox / Zack Beauchamp]
- The Amnesty report said that the prison facility was enlarged in 2012 to enable more executions. "Our data … suggests as many as 50 murders a day coming out of the complex," the State Department's Jones told reporters. "If you have that level of production of mass murder, then using the crematorium would help." The photos released by State show the addition of HVAC facilities, a discharge stack, and other changes that suggest a crematorium has been constructed. [State Department / Stuart Jones]
- Jones further specified that he thinks the crematorium is a way to destroy evidence of the Syrian government’s crimes: “We believe that the building of a crematorium is an effort to cover up the extent of mass murders taking place in Saydnaya prison.”
- Jones’s remarks included a specific call-out to Russia, the Syrian government’s main foreign backer, calling on it to “exercise its great influence over the Syrian regime” to stop the mass murders at Saydnaya. [Washington Post / Karen DeYoung]
- The timing of the revelation is also important: Tomorrow, indirect peace talks between the Syrian government and opposition start up again in Geneva, and Jones is the highest-ranking American official involved in the details of the Syrian peace process. The Assad government has downplayed the Geneva talks in favor of a parallel process in Kazakhstan with Russia, Turkey, and Iran, to negotiate local ceasefire zones. Jones has been an observer for some of those talks too. [The Guardian / Julian Borger]
The news is fake, but the leaks are real
- So President Trump apparently gave extremely classified information to the Russian former minister and US ambassador last week? Kind of on accident? [Washington Post / Greg Miller and Greg Jaffe]
- Trump told Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Ambassador Sergey Kislyak (whose contacts with National Security Adviser Michael Flynn forced Flynn’s resignation) details about an ISIS terrorist plots involving laptops on airplanes, and gave away the city in ISIS territory where a US intel-sharing ally found out about the threat. The Washington Post is being more discreet about the matter than Trump was, clarifying that the newspaper "is withholding most plot details, including the name of the city, at the urging of officials who warned that revealing them would jeopardize important intelligence capabilities."
- The information in question came through an intel sharing deal "so sensitive that details have been withheld from allies and tightly restricted even within the U.S. government," per the Washington Post scoop. The intel is "code-word information," one of the highest classification levels that the intelligence community uses.
- This revelation by the Post comes after a week of speculation and concern over Trump’s willingness to allow a Russian state media photographer into the Oval Office as part of the visit. Counterintelligence experts said that was a needless security breach that could’ve let the photographer, a Russian government employee, install a listening device or other surveillance gear in the White House. [Washington Post / Carol Morello and Greg Miller]
- But it appears the more imminent security risk was just Trump running his mouth.
- How bad is this? In the words of national security law expert Benjamin Wittes: “This story is nauseating. You might have to work with natsec people to understand how bad it is, but it's horrible. Really really bad.” [Benjamin Wittes]
- So is this all evidence of US-Russian collusion? Maybe, but again, the Post story suggests that maybe Trump is just extremely insecure and wanted to impress his guests. He reportedly told Lavrov and Kislyak, “I get great intel. I have people brief me on great intel every day.”
- It’s not even illegal, either; the president has broad authority to declassify whatever he wants.
- And we can’t say we didn’t see this coming. Here's a Politico story from the day after inauguration, on intelligence community worries about Trump leaking to Russia: "Trump’s off-the-cuff communication style also alarms observers in the U.S. and abroad who worry he may, inadvertently or out of bravado, reveal classified information." [Politico / Nahal Toosi]
A consequential non-decision
- The Supreme Court refused to review an appeals court ruling striking down North Carolina’s 2013 voting restriction law — effectively letting the law stay dead. [Vox / German Lopez]
- The law — which, like a lot of other voting restrictions, was passed in the immediate aftermath of a 2013 Supreme Court decision that allowed Southern states to pass voting restrictions without sign-off from the federal government — was immediately challenged for diluting African-American voting power in the state, by limiting early voting, increasing voter ID requirements, and restricting same-day voter registration. [The Atlantic / Vann Newkirk]
- In 2016, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed that the law had violated the Voting Rights Act. The court’s reasoning partly relied on some alarmingly candid admissions from North Carolina politicians that they wanted to limit voting in predominantly black and predominantly Democratic areas... [NYT / Michael Wines and Alan Blinder]
- ...and partly because it decided that, in this case, trying to limit Democratic voting was a proxy for trying to limit black voting. It’s an innovative legal doctrine, and one that some voting law experts want to see developed further. [Slate / Rick Hasen]
- But the state’s then-governor, a Republican, appealed the decision to the Supreme Court — which was unlikely to entertain the Fourth Circuit’s reasoning. Under Chief Justice John Roberts — who wrote the 2013 decision that allowed all this to happen to begin with — the Court has been marked by its skepticism in racial discrimination cases, particularly where the vote is concerned. [NYT Magazine / Jim Rutenberg]
- So in February 2017, the state’s newly elected Democratic governor tried to withdraw the SCOTUS appeal. And then the Republican-majority state legislature tried to stop him from being allowed to withdraw it. [TPM / Alice Ollstein]
- In a note Monday, Roberts made it clear that the confusion over who was allowed to appeal was the reason the Court won’t hear the North Carolina case. In fact, he went out of his way to stress that the Court didn’t necessarily agree with the Fourth Circuit’s decision to strike down the law. [Election Law Blog / Rick Hasen]
- So while voting rights advocates are greeting today’s news as a victory, they’re not taking it as a sign that the Roberts Court is softening up on voting anytime soon. [Washington Post / Paul Waldman]
- Oh, yeah, and Republicans in government keep hinting that there’s going to be another Supreme Court vacancy this summer for President Trump to fill. [Fox News / Cody Derespina]
- Good news for mushroom workers: A labor shortage in Pennsylvania mushroom country is leading to a surge in wages for fungi cultivators. [WSJ / Scott Calvert]
- What happens when you accept $100,000 from Peter Thiel to drop out of college? [Chronicle of Higher Education / Beth McMurtrie]
- If you're rich and have dental problems, you get a root canal or a crown. If you're poor, you might have to wait in a line of hundreds of people, for hours, in sub-freezing temperatures, to become one of the lucky few people to get a tooth pulled at a pop-up free clinic in Maryland. [Washington Post / Mary Jordan, Kevin Sullivan]
- The mortgage interest deduction emerged more or less by accident — and it's a nightmare that exacerbates inequality and offers poor people with rental basically nothing. [NYT Mag / Matthew Desmond]
- When you hear "Avril Lavigne," you might think, "Oh, that person who's alive." But what if instead of being alive, she died in late 2003 and was replaced by a look-alike actress? What then? [BBC / Lamia Estatie]
- “Trump thought he was getting somebody who left the Kochs to go work for him. He thought he was getting the Kochs' shiny trophy, when he was really getting their dog shit.” [Sam Nunberg to GQ / Jason Zengerle]
- “I knew I would shoot up drugs from a very young age. I’d been wanting to do heroin since I was 14 years old.” [Albert Hammond Jr. to NY Mag / Lizzy Goodman]
- “[Canadian Prime Minister Mackenzie] King went into obsessive detail about Hitler’s background, his vegetarianism, his love of nature, his alleged religiousness. He remembered every detail from the meeting: How Hitler positioned his hands, what he was wearing, his ‘knowing smile’ and his ‘smooth’ skin.” [National Post / Tristin Hopper]
- “A young person in his 20s, unformed, skittish, goes out into the world and tries to fall in love, a project complicated by the bulky defenses that allow him to undertake so risky a venture in the first place. Now imagine that same person, many years into a stable marriage, anchored. He is no longer a stranger to himself; he is more likely to have forgiveness for human frailty. He can — theoretically — retreat to the safe harbor of his marriage at any time. What would it be like to be entranced by someone new, without needing, simultaneously to lay claim?” [NYT Mag / Susan Dominus]
- “The primary reason I doubt we’re going to see that smoking gun is that it’s hard to see why it would be in Russia’s interest to loop the Trump campaign in on their interference campaign.” [Just Security / Julian Sanchez]
Watch this: The White House press briefing is dying
James Comey's firing has undermined the credibility of the White House press briefing — and Trump knows it. [YouTube / Carlos Maza]