Yates: Alarm about Russian blackmail led to warning on Flynn

Former Acting Attorney General Sally Yates. (Reuters)
Updated 09 May 2017
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Yates: Alarm about Russian blackmail led to warning on Flynn

WASHINGTON: Former acting Attorney General Sally Yates told Congress Monday she bluntly warned the Trump White House in January that new National Security Adviser Michael Flynn “essentially could be blackmailed” by the Russians because he apparently had lied to his bosses about his contacts with Moscow’s ambassador in Washington.
The testimony from Yates, an Obama administration holdover fired soon after for other reasons, marked her first public comments about the concerns she raised and filled in basic details about the chain of events that led to Flynn’s ouster in February.
Her testimony, coupled with the revelation hours earlier that President Barack Obama himself had warned Donald Trump against hiring Flynn shortly after the November election, made clear that alarms about Flynn had reached the highest levels of the US government months before. Flynn had been an adviser to Trump and an outspoken supporter of his presidential candidacy in the 2016 campaign.
Yates, appearing before a Senate panel investigating Russian interference in the election, described discussions with Don McGahn, the Trump White House counsel, in which she warned that Flynn apparently had misled the administration about his communications with Sergey Kislyak, the Russian ambassador.
White House officials, including Vice President Mike Pence, had insisted that Flynn had not discussed US-imposed sanctions with Kislyak during the presidential transition period. But the White House asked Flynn to resign after news reports indicated he had misled officials about the nature of the calls.
“We felt like it was critical that we get this information to the White House, in part because the vice president was unknowingly making false statements to the public and because we believed that Gen. Flynn was compromised with respect to the Russians,” Yates said.
“To state the obvious,” she added later, “you don’t want your national security adviser compromised with the Russians.”
She said she had briefed the Trump White House so that they could take “the action that they deemed appropriate” and that she believed the Russians already had the same information about the calls.
Yates’ questioning by a Senate panel investigating Russian interference in the presidential election was just one portion of a politically charged day that began with combative tweets from Trump and continued with disclosures from Obama administration officials about a private Oval Office conversation between Obama and his successor.
Republican senators in the hearing repeatedly pressed Yates on an unrelated matter — her refusal to defend the Trump administration’s travel ban — and whether she was responsible for leaking classified information. She said she was not.
Trump shouldered into the conversation in the morning, tweeting that it was the Obama administration, not he, that had given Lt. Gen. Flynn “the highest security clearance” when he worked at the Pentagon. Trump made no mention of the fact that Flynn had been fired from his high position by the Obama administration in 2014.
Yates filled in new details of the events of Jan. 26, describing contacting McGahn in the morning and telling him she had something sensitive to discuss in person. Later that day, at the White House, she told him there was an alarming discrepancy between how Trump officials, including Pence, were characterizing Flynn’s contacts with Kislyak and what intelligence officials knew to be true based on recordings they’d reviewed.
The pair spoke several times over the next two days, with McGahn asking Yates how Flynn had fared during an interview with the FBI earlier that week — she did not answer — and why it was the concern of the Justice Department if White House officials had misled each other.
Yates herself, a longtime federal prosecutor, was fired by Trump on Jan. 30 after refusing to defend his travel ban. James Clapper, director of national intelligence under Obama, also testified Monday. He retired when Trump took office.
Separately Monday, former Obama officials said he had raised general concerns about Flynn with Trump and had told the incoming president there were better people for the national security post.
Trump’s press secretary Sean Spicer said in response that if Obama “was seriously concerned” about Flynn’s connections to Russia or other foreign countries, he should have withheld Flynn’s security clearance. Flynn served under Obama as defense intelligence chief before Obama dismissed him.
Trump repeatedly has said he has no ties to Russia and isn’t aware of any involvement by his aides in any Russian interference in the election. He’s dismissed FBI and congressional investigations into his campaign’s possible ties to the election meddling as a “hoax” driven by Democrats bitter over losing the White House.
After the hearing Monday, Trump tweeted: “The Russia-Trump collusion story is a total hoax, when will this taxpayer funded charade end?“
The Associated Press reported last week that one sign taken as a warning by Obama officials about Flynn’s contacts with Kislyak was a request by a member of Trump’s own transition team made to national security officials in the Obama White House for the classified CIA profile of Kislyak.
The AP interviewed multiple former US officials, most of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to discuss sensitive national security information.
Yates’ warning about Flynn capped weeks of concern among top Obama officials, former officials told the AP. Obama himself told one of his closest advisers that the FBI, which by then had been investigating Trump associates’ possible ties to Russia for about six months, seemed particularly focused on Flynn.
Yates had been scheduled to appear weeks ago before the House intelligence committee, but that hearing was canceled.
The subcommittee meeting Monday is one of multiple congressional probes into the Russia interference, along with House and Senate intelligence panels. All the committees are led by Republicans.
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White House Correspondent Julie Pace contributed to this report.


Indonesia’s radical cleric to be freed next week

Updated 11 min 58 sec ago
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Indonesia’s radical cleric to be freed next week

  • Bashir’s lawyers say their client had already served eight years out of his 15-year sentence
  • Bashir was convicted in 2011 of supporting paramilitary training in Aceh

JAKARTA: Abu Bakar Bashir, Indonesia’s Muslim cleric known for his radical religious views and the ideological icon for the 2002 Bali bombers, is to be released from prison next week on health grounds, his lawyers confirmed on Saturday.

Muhammad Mahendradatta, the head of Bashir’s legal team, told journalists at a press conference that Bashir had served eight years out of his 15-year sentence. He said the team had been seeking his early release for the past two years, as his poor health required him to undergo regular medical checkups.

“So this early release didn’t just come out of the blue. This is a legal matter, (not) a gift. It is his right for parole and a normal procedure that has legal grounds,” Mahendrattta said, rebuffing claims that the cleric’s release had any political interests just because it required the approval of the president.

“We are talking about the office of the president. Whoever is sitting in office now would be required to do so,” Mahendradatta said.

Incumbent President Joko Widodo is running for a second term in office on April 17 amid a popular perception that he lacks Islamic credentials and that his regime persecutes the ulemas.

Achmad Michdan, one of Bashir’s lawyer, said the cleric had been eligible for parole by Dec. 13, but he remained in prison as he refused to sign a document for his release that required him to pledge loyalty to the state ideology of Pancasila.

“We understand and respect his views and his refusal to be tied to terrorism,” Michdan said.

According to Widodo’s legal adviser Yusril Ihza Mahendra, who lobbied the president for Bashir’s release, the cleric insisted that he would only be loyal to God, even if that meant that he would have to serve the rest of his sentence.

Mahendra, who is the leader of a minor Islamic political party, said the political gravity of Bashir’s case required the president’s approval to override a regulation that details conditions for the early release of extraordinary offenders, including terrorism offenders. 

“President Jokowi’s consideration to grant the release was based on humanitarian grounds and his respect for the ulemas,” Mahendra said, referring to the president by his nickname.

He added that, as the president’s legal adviser, he had been entrusted by Widodo with taking care of the matter and coordinating accordingly with related ministers and law enforcement agencies.

Mahendradatta said the release would be unconditional from both the government’s and Bashir’s side.

The decision was announced on Friday, after the first presidential debate on Thursday evening, during which Widodo and his opponent Prabowo Subianto and their respective running mates, head of the Indonesian Council of Ulema (MUI) Ma’ruf Amin and former Jakarta deputy governor Sandiaga Uno, presented their visions and programs on law enforcement, human rights, and terrorism.

“The MUI has issued an edict that declares terrorism is not jihad and that it is haram (forbidden in Islam),” Amin said when he spoke in the debate.

Bashir was convicted in 2011 of supporting paramilitary training in Aceh. The cleric is described as the ideological icon of Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), including those who carried out bomb attacks in Bali in 2002. Bashir has insisted that he was not rebelling against the country and that he was only collecting money to fund training and travel for those who wanted to go as mujahideen to Palestine.

Bashir could have asked for clemency to get an early release but refused to do so since it would have meant pleading guilty to the charges against him.

In March last year, Defense Minister Ryamizard Ryacudu said the government was weighing up which form of sentence leniency it could give Bashir. Chief security minister Wiranto said the government would move Bashir to a prison near his hometown in Solo, Central Java.

However, Michdan said the plan never materialized and Bashir remained in his isolation cell in Gunung Sindur prison in Bogor, West Java.