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Senate Dem. warns Trump could push through Saudi bomb deal without congressional approval



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By Dan De Luce, Courtney Kube and Abigail Williams

Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy warned on Wednesday that the Trump administration is considering a move to bypass Congress and push through the sale of bombs to Saudi Arabia by declaring a national security emergency.

The Connecticut lawmaker, an outspoken critic of Saudi Arabia’s human rights record and its military campaign in Yemen, expressed concern over the possible action in a series of tweets.

“I am hearing that Trump may use an obscure loophole in the Arms Control Act and notice a major new sale of bombs to Saudi Arabia (the ones they drop in Yemen) in a way that will prevent Congress from objecting.” Murphy wrote.

“Arms control law allows Congress to reject a sale to a foreign country. But Trump would claim the sale constitutes an ‘emergency’ which means Congress can’t take a vote of disapproval. It would go through automatically,” Murphy tweeted.

The White House National Security Council declined to comment.

Asked about Murphy’s comments, State Department spokesperson Morgan Ortagus told reporters: “We do not comment to confirm or deny potential arms sales or transfers until Congress is formally notified.”

Three U.S. officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, told NBC News that the administration was poised to unveil an arms sale to Saudi Arabia. But they did not offer more details or confirm that President Donald Trump planned to declare an emergency to bypass Congress.

Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen against Houthi rebels, marked by a heavy civilian death toll from air strikes, and the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi last year at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, has fueled growing hostility in Congress toward Riyadh.

People inspect the site of an airstrike by Saudi-led coalition in Sanaa, Yemen on May, 16, 2019.Hani Mohammed / AP

A bipartisan majority in Congress voted to halt U.S. support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen but President Trump vetoed the legislation last month.

Any move by Trump to expedite an arms deal without congressional approval would trigger an angry reaction among lawmakers from both sides of the aisle and possibly lead to attempts to adopt a broader ban on any weapons sales to the Saudis.

Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey has held up the sale of precision guided bombs to Saudi Arabia since April 2018. The senator has blocked the sale from going forward over allegations from human rights groups that Saudi-led forces have failed to safeguard civilian lives and carried out indiscriminate bombing in Yemen. Riyadh rejects the allegations.

Menendez and other lawmakers also have expressed outrage over the killing of Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist was last seen entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October 2018. The CIA has concluded that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered the journalist’s killing, according to a person briefed on the CIA’s assessment.

Murphy raised the possibility that Trump would cite tensions with Iran as an “emergency” to justify invoking his authority.

The Democrat said such a move would set a “dangerous precedent” that could undermine Congress as a check on presidential power.

Under U.S. arms control law, Congress must be given 30 days to approve U.S. arms sales to foreign countries. However, in a rarely used provision of that law, the president can declare an “emergency,” sidestepping Congress and sending the sale through immediately. In 1984, President Ronald Reagan used the same provision to sell 400 Stinger missiles and 200 launchers to Saudi Arabia in response to their urgent request for help in defending the kingdom against Iran.

The law still requires the U.S. president to submit to Congress a justification for the emergency arms sale citing the national security interests involved.

Saudi Arabia remains the United States’ largest foreign military sales customer with over $129 billion in approved purchases.

Last November, after the killing of Khashoggi, Trump justified the controversial U.S.-Saudi Arabia relationship by pointing to the economic benefits of arms sales to Saudi Arabia.

As of May, around $27.9 billion or 25% of a 10-year $110 billion arms agreement — negotiated under the Trump administration and signed in 2017 — had been implemented.

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House Democrats propose $25 million fund for CO detectors and other health upgrades in public housing



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By Suzy Khimm

The House Appropriations Committee has proposed a $25 million grant program for installing carbon monoxide detectors and remediating other health hazards in public housing.

The proposal comes in the wake of news reports on dangerous public housing conditions, including a monthslong NBC News investigation into the lack of carbon monoxide protections in homes overseen by the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

“Carbon monoxide is a widespread hazard — perhaps more widespread than we had known,” said Rep. David Price, D-N.C., the committee’s head of housing and transportation. Every public housing authority “ought to be paying attention to this as a possible hazard, and now there is a federal program that encourages and helps them,” he added.

Under the newly proposed program, local public housing authorities will be able to apply for federal grants to install carbon monoxide detectors, combat mold and remove asbestos, among other environmental health hazards, according to a draft budget proposal for fiscal year 2020 released Wednesday by the committee’s Democratic leadership.

At least 13 residents of HUD properties have died of carbon monoxide poisoning since 2003, according to an NBC News investigation, but HUD does not currently require detectors in any of the properties where more than 4.6 million low-income families live. HUD says it plans to move forward with a new rule requiring detectors, but the agency has not released a proposal, and it could take months before one is enacted.

If approved by Congress, the new grant program would be in addition to the $5 million that HUD recently said it would dedicate to carbon monoxide detectors in public housing. Under both initiatives, only local housing authorities can apply for the new grants, not private owners or landlords.

The new $25 million program is part of the House committee’s broader proposal to increase spending on the Public Housing Capital Fund, which is dedicated to developing and modernizing public housing across the U.S. The draft bill would raise spending on the capital fund by $80 million above the $2.775 billion enacted in last year’s budget. The Trump administration has proposed eliminating the fund altogether.

Price’s subcommittee is formally considering the draft budget on Thursday, after which it must go through the full House Appropriations Committee, then the House.

The House Appropriations Committee is also proposing $11 million in additional funding for HUD’s Office of Lead Hazard Control and Healthy Homes. That office allows state and local governments, as well as nonprofit and for-profit firms, to receive grant money for combating health hazards in housing, including carbon monoxide, but HUD does not award them directly to individuals. Public housing authorities also cannot participate in the program.

Federal investment in public housing as a whole has declined drastically over the past two decades, raising concerns that newly proposed requirements like carbon monoxide detectors could squeeze housing authorities already struggling to repair and maintain crumbling facilities.

Adrianne Todman, CEO of the National Association of Housing and Redevelopment Officials, welcomed the 2020 budget proposal from the House committee and said she was “particularly glad” to see the funds specifically dedicated to addressing residents’ health and safety needs.

Emily Benfer, a visiting associate clinical law professor at Columbia University, agreed.

“This is a critical step to ensuring that public housing will not be the source of asthma, lead poisoning, cancer or death,” Benfer said. “Especially in light of the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning and the recent and tragic loss of life in public housing, Congress’ investment in the health and well-being of residents is critical.”

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In letter, ‘American Taliban’ John Walker Lindh said ISIS ‘doing a spectacular job’



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By Ken Dilanian

John Walker Lindh, the American captured fighting with the Afghan Taliban two months after the 9/11 attacks, is set to be released from prison Thursday amid concerns among U.S. authorities that he remains a potentially violent Islamic extremist, current and former officials told NBC News.

Underscoring those worries is Lindh’s 2015 handwritten letter from prison to NBC’s Los Angeles station KNBC —revealed for the first time Wednesday — in which he expressed support for ISIS, saying the terror group that beheaded Americans was “doing a spectacular job.”

“The Islamic State is clearly very sincere and serious about fulfilling the long-neglected religious obligation to establish a caliphate through armed struggle, which is the only correct method,” Lindh wrote.

Lindh expressed that sentiment—in response to a question from the station about whether ISIS represents Islam—after ISIS had beheaded Americans in well-publicized videos, including journalist James Foley in August 2014. It was his third of four letters in a series of correspondence with KNBC.

He did not respond to a follow-up question asking him about ISIS violence, saying in his final letter that he would no longer respond to the reporter’s inquiries.

Lindh’s correspondence with journalists and other comments he made in prison formed part of the basis of a 2016 U.S. intelligence document, produced by the National Counter Terrorism Center, saying that he “continued to advocate for global jihad and to write and translate violent extremist texts.”

John Walker Lindh, obtained Jan. 22, 2002 from a record of religious schools where he studied for five months in Bannu, Pakistan.via AP file

A memo making a similar point was circulating among authorities last week, according to a U.S. official who read it.

After serving 17 years of a 20-year sentence, Lindh will be released for good behavior, as is standard in the federal system. Judge T.S. Ellis imposed unusually restrictive conditions on him, including mandatory monitoring of his internet usage, banning him from foreign travel and requiring mental health counseling. A U.S. official told NBC News he would live in Northern Virginia, something his lawyer affirmed to KNTV, the NBC station in the Bay Area.

“It is one of the most restrictive sets of conditions I’ve seen in a terrorism case, and it probably speaks to their concerns about him,” said Seamus Hughes, a former U.S. intelligence official who studies extremism at George Washington University.

Lindh’s lawyer and a representative of his family declined to comment to NBC News.

The conditions of his supervised release last three years, after which Lindh will be clear of formal supervision. U.S. officials told NBC News the FBI is likely to keep a close eye on him. It’s unclear whether authorities would have a legal predicate to obtain a national security warrant to intercept his communications.

Lindh expressed remorse during his 2002 sentencing hearing before Judge T.S. Ellis in Alexandria, Va., saying he did not support terrorism and he made a “mistake by joining the Taliban.”

In his letters to NBC 4 Los Angeles, he expressed markedly different sentiments, saying he was proud “to take part in the Afghan jihad.” In the letters, he signed his name as Yahya.

Concerns about Lindh’s extremist views were the subject of a 2017 article in Foreign Policy magazine, but they have not been widely publicized. Many people, including prominent figures, had urged that his sentence be commuted, portraying him as a misguided young man who was caught up in the heightened tensions of the post 9/11 period.

One expert said Lindh would be wise to clarify his views about ISIS.

“John Walker Lindh served his time. Given the support for ISIS expressed in this letter from four years ago, it would be important for Lindh to go on record declaring his intentions to live a peaceful and constructive life and to renounce terrorism and violence,” said Karen Greenberg, director of Fordham University’s Center on National Security. “Without that, allegations, confusion and anger will likely continue to surround him.”

The conditions of his supervised release don’t satisfy some who are watching the case. Two U.S. senators, Richard C. Shelby, R-Ala., and Maggie Hassan, D-N.H., wrote a letter to the bureau of prisons questioning why Lindh was being released early, and pointing to a lack of government effort to deal with the many convicted terrorists who will be following Lindh to freedom.

“As many as 108 other federal terrorist offenders are scheduled to complete their sentences and be released from U.S. federal prisons over the next few years,” they wrote. “Little information has been made available to the public about who, when and where these offenders will be released, whether they pose an ongoing threat, and what federal agencies are doing to mitigate this threat while the offenders are in federal custody.”

Also disturbed by the release is Johnny Spann, whose son, CIA officer Johnny Micheal Spann, was killed during a prison riot in an Afghan holding facility where Lindh was detained. Judge Ellis said there was no evidence linking Lindh directly to the death.

Spann sent a letter to Ellis asking for an investigation into the intelligence reports about Lindh’s extremism. Spann could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

He told the New York Times: “We’ve got a traitor that was given 20 years and I can’t do anything about it. He was given a 20-year sentence when it should’ve been life in prison.”

Nick Rasmussen, the former director of the National Counter Terrorism Center and an NBC News contributor, said he could not discuss the intelligence about Lindh.

But, he said, “the looming release of John Walker Lindh highlights in the starkest possible way challenges that lie ahead of us in managing the reintegration into society of extremists who finish their prison sentences.”

The criminal justice system is well equipped to prosecute and convict terrorists, he said, “but we are much less well postured to carry out successful rehabilitation and de-radicalization programs. That means that convicted terrorism subjects who finish their sentences like John Walker Lindh could very well pose a security problem once they leave prison.”

Lindh converted from Catholicism to Islam as a teenager, leaving his home in California to study Arabic in Yemen. more than three years before the 9/11 terrorist attacks. He traveled Pakistan and later Afghanistan, where he spent time at a Qaeda training camp and briefly met Osama bin Laden, according to court testimony.

He was captured fighting with the Taliban even as the fires were still burning under the wreckage of what once was the World Trade Center. His situation provoked outrage in some quarters and sympathy in others.

His father, Frank Lindh, in 2006 called him “a decent and honorable young man embarked on a spiritual quest who became the focus of the grief and anger of an entire nation over an event in which he had no part.”

But U.S. officials say that in an era when ISIS is encouraging Americans to attack at home by driving trucks into crowds, his comments and writings in prison make him someone they continue to worry about.

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