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Russian Spy Ship Back on East Coast but Making No Waves in Washington

The Russian spy ship that transited up and back down the East Coast of the United States in February is taking another lap — and making no waves in Washington.

Last month's trip by the SSV-175 Viktor Leonov, though routine, made headlines because it appeared at an intriguing moment in U.S.-Russian relations.

After making its way back down the coast, it had a port call in Havana for a couple of weeks and then embarked on a return trip. 

As of Wednesday morning, it was about 20 nautical miles off the coast of Georgia, staying well outside of U.S. territorial waters and conducting a perfectly legal transit, according to one U.S. military official.

The official said the ship is expected to head north along the coast and then turn back around and head to a port call in Jamaica. As NBC News reported last month, its limited and outdated electronic eavesdropping gear means it can only listen to radio communications — ship-to-ship, ship-to-shore, and commercial radio broadcasts.

Asked whether the U.S. military is concerned about the transit, the official said, "Not really. We are about as concerned this time as we are every other time they do this."

image: Viktor Leonov
The Viktor Leonov CCB-175, a Russian Navy intelligence warship, is docked at a pier in Havana in 2015. Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images, file

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Former Acting AG Sally Yates to Testify Publicly in House Russia Probe

Former acting attorney general Sally Yates, who is said to have told the White House that then-National Security Adviser Michael Flynn was vulnerable to blackmail, has been invited to testify publicly before Congress.

The Republican and Democrat leading the House Intelligence Committee probe of Russian election interference announced Friday they are seeking to schedule public testimony sometime after May 2 by Yates, as well as former CIA Director John Brennan and James Clapper, the former director of national intelligence.

All three former officials have insights into what the U.S. intelligence community knows about alleged contacts between Trump associates and Russians. Whether they can discuss any of that in public is another matter.

Shortly after Trump took office in January, Yates informed the White House she believed Flynn had misled senior administration officials about his communications with the Russian ambassador to the U.S., and warned that Flynn was potentially vulnerable to Russian blackmail, current and former U.S. officials told the Washington Post.

Yates was later fired by Trump after she refused to enforce his travel ban directed at Muslim majority countries.

Flynn was ousted after it became clear he had misled Vice President Mike Pence about whether he discussed sanctions with the Russian ambassador.

U.S. Raid Kills ISIS Terror Plotter in Syria, Says Pentagon

One of the ISIS leaders who helped plot the New Year's attack on an Istanbul nightlcub was killed earlier this month in a U.S. ground raid in Syria, the Pentagon announced Friday.

Abdul Rahman Uzbeki was a "close associate" of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, according to CENTCOM spokesperson Colonel John Thomas. Uzbeki was killed in a U.S. military "ground operation" in Syria on April 6. Thomas would not elaborate on the raid or not, saying only that the operation was intended to "eliminate him."

ISIS took credit for the mass shooting at the Reina nightclub on Jan. 1, 2017, which killed at least 39 people. The alleged gunman, an Uzbek national, was captured in Istanbul a week later.

Image: Gun attack at a night club in Istanbul
Ambulances transport wounded people after a gun attack on Reina, a popular night club in Istanbul near by the Bosphorus, early morning in Istanbul, Turkey on Jan. 1, 2017. STR / EPA

Pentagon Quietly Corrects Mattis Statement About the USS Vinson

Last week the White House said sending the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson into the waters around Korea would let the North Korean regime know the U.S. was serious. "We are sending an armada," said President Trump.

Then reporters noticed the Vinson's strike force was sailing away from Korea instead, toward a preplanned joint exercise with the Royal Australian Navy, apparently garbling the intended message to the Kim Jong Un regime.

The confusion started with a minor slip by Defense Secretary James Mattis during an April 11 press briefing. Mattis was asked if the U.S. was sending a signal to North Korea by very publicly redirecting the ship north. Mattis said the ship's change in itinerary had been made public because "she was originally headed in one direction for an exercise, and we canceled our role in that exercise ... We had to explain why she wasn't in that exercise."

In fact, the planned exercise was never canceled, and went forward as scheduled. It was a trip down to Fremantle, Australia, where crew families would've met their loved ones onshore, that was cancelled.

On Wednesday, the Navy quietly slipped a correction into the eight-day-old briefing transcript, inserting a note right after the Secretary's statement about the exercise: "Sic: The ship's port visit to Fremantle, Australia, was cancelled; the exercise with the Royal Australian navy is proceeding as planned."

  

Image: The aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson (CVN 70) transits the Pacific Ocean
The aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson (CVN 70) transits the Pacific Ocean on Jan. 30, 2017. Tom Tonthat / U.S. Navy via Reuters

House Democrat Mum About Trip to Cyprus for Russia Probe

Democratic Rep. Mike Quigley of Chicago, an intelligence committee member, doesn’t want to say much about his recent trip to Cyprus as part of the Congressional investigation into Russian interference in the election campaign.

“All I can say is, it’s very important to understand how the Russians launder money,” Quigley told NBC News.  “Just look at the public reports — the key Russian and American figures all played in Cyprus.”

NBC News’ Richard Engel reported from Cyprus last month that a ban there investigated accounts associated with President Donald Trump's former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, for possible money-laundering.

The trip, Quigley said, underscored for him the idea that the House investigation could use more resources.  But, he said, he believes the investigation is back on track, now that Republican committee chairman Devin Nunes has stepped aside pending the resolution of ethics complaints.

“We’re going to keep at it,” Quigley said.

Image:  Rep. Mike Quigley
Rep. Mike Quigley, D-Ill., speaks at a news conference in Washington on Nov. 15, 2012. Tom Williams / CQ-Roll Call file

Paul Manafort Has Not Registered as a Foreign Agent

On April 12, a spokesman for former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort said that after consulting with federal authorities about whether he should register as a foreign agent because of his past work in Ukraine, Manafort would be taking "appropriate steps."

Many took that to mean Manafort was about to register as an agent under the Foreign Agents Registration Act.

However, when NBC News asked spokesman Jason Maloni directly whether Manafort was going to register, Maloni wouldn't say yes or no. 

A week later, there is no record of any filing on the Justice Department's website. Maloni told NBC News, "I don't have an update."

The Not-So-Little North Korean Missile That Couldn't

The sad history of the Musudan, a missile once hyped as a game-changer for North Korea, shows why skepticism is always warranted when assessing Pyongyang’s military might.

After being rolled out to great fanfare in July 2013, the Musudan wasn’t even test-fired until April 2016, during Kim il Sung’s 104th birthday celebration. The test failed. Two weeks later, another test, another failure. Later the same day, there was a third test. The Musudan, which is supposed to have a 2,500-mile range, flew 200 meters before crashing.

During a May 2016 test, the Musudan had an even shorter flight — it exploded on the launch pad. The missile didn't have its first fully successful launch until June 2016. And since then, there have been more failures. Four years after its debut, the U.S. intelligence community estimates the Musudan has an 88 percent failure rate, crashing, toppling, failing to launch, or exploding.

"The Musudan," said one senior U.S. intelligence official, "comes equipped with a fire extinguisher."

Official: Maybe Those North Korean Missiles Were Just Big Green Tubes

U.S. intelligence officials and private experts are trying to make sense of the missiles they saw displayed in Pyongyang Saturday during a parade to honor the 105th anniversary of the birth of the country’s founder.

The procession’s vast array of ballistic missiles included some models that hadn’t been seen in public before, U.S. intelligence officials said.

"We are currently analyzing the equipment displayed at this year's parade," the Pentagon's Defense Intelligence Agency said in a statement. "While some systems appear consistent with past public displays, others have not been previously observed."

 What isn’t clear is to what extent the new missiles are functional. In the past, North Korea has paraded fake missiles.

"I still don’t know what I saw," said Jeffrey Lewis, a North Korea specialist at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, in California, who said he recognized "things that are familiar that have been subtly redesigned — or in some cases, not so subtly."

Another U.S. intelligence official added, "Pyongyang’s elaborate parade of weaponry was likely intended to telegraph to the world and its own people that North Korea maintains a viable deterrent. Unfortunately, behind the goose-stepping soldiers, parade of missiles and belligerent bluster, lies a country that at its core is only held together by its sheer brutality. As with many things with North Korea, the task is to discern the fact from the fiction. Were they displaying real missiles or just big green tubes?"

One of those tubes was the size of an intercontinental ballistic missile, experts said. But it’s unclear whether it was an actual weapon. Nor is it clear that North Korea has the technology to mount a nuclear warhead on such a missile.

Image: Military experts say this appears to be a North Korean KN-08 Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICMB).
Military experts say this appears to be a North Korean KN-08 Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICMB). Wong Maye-E / AP

World Trade Center Bomber Is Writing Book Blasting ISIS

A lawyer who represents many of the alleged and convicted al Qaeda terrorists in U.S. custody says nearly all of them view ISIS as "a corruption of Islam" that hurts their religion.

One of Bernard Kleinman’s clients — a World Trade Center bomber — feels so strongly that ISIS is "corrupting Islam" that he’s written a 250-page essay repudiating the group, and Kleinman thinks the U.S. government ought to "somehow try to make use of it."

According to an interview with Kleinman in the Sentinel, published by the Combatting Terrorism Center at West Point, Ramzi Yousef "has devoted his efforts to this project solely … on the basis that he believes that ISIS does great harm to Islam throughout the world."

Yousef is serving a life sentence for his role in the first World Trade Center bombing, which killed six people in 1993 but failed to topple the Manhattan towers.

Kleinman said his clients at Guantanamo and the federal Supermax facility in Colorado disagree with ISIS attacks on Shiites and don’t believe that ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is really a descendant of the Prophet Mohammed’s tribe.

Kleinman said he thinks the U.S. ought to use Yousef’s massive essay as a force for good and make it publicly available. "If you can create doubt in just one wannabe ISIS recruit about the religious legitimacy of ISIS’s actions, and by doing that save lives, then I think it would be worth it."

 

Image: Ramzi Ahmed Yousef, shown in these undated file photos, was sentenced to life in prison without parole for masterminding the 1993 World Trade Center explosion and a plot to bomb a dozen U.S. passenger airliners.
Ramzi Ahmed Yousef, shown in these undated file photos, was sentenced to life in prison without parole for masterminding the 1993 World Trade Center explosion and a plot to bomb a dozen U.S. passenger airliners. U.S. District Judge Kevin Duffy sentenced Yousef to 240 years in prison, with restrictions that amount to solitary confinement, and said that only proven family members could visit him.

Could North Korea Hit Japan with Sarin Nerve Gas Missiles?

Earlier today Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe warned Parliament that Pyongyang might be able to kill Japan's citizens with poison-tipped missiles.

"There is a possibility that North Korea already has a capability to deliver missiles with sarin as warheads," said Abe. His alarm was echoed by warnings in South Korean media.

Foreign militaries and intelligence agencies have long believed North Korea is deeply involved in chemical weapons research and production. In 2015, the Pentagon told Congress North Korea "likely possesses a CW stockpile" and likely had "the capability to produce nerve, blister, blood, and choking agents."

The Pentagon also said "North Korea probably could employ CW agents by modifying a variety of conventional munitions, including artillery and ballistic missiles."

Abe was going a step further, suggesting the North has now actually weaponized sarin, the same nerve agent used by Syria on civilians last week.

The Japanese are very aware of what nerve agents can do. In 1995, a Japanese cult killed 12 people and made thousands ill on rush-hour trains with sarin. And South Korea, China and Japan are all in range of North Korean non-nuclear missiles.

Without providing specifics, U.S. officials told NBC News that what Abe fears is within the realm of possibility — the North is technically capable of delivering sarin by missile. But the same officials note the U.S. does not have "certainty" on what chemical weapons the North possesses, in what quantities, or whether their chemicals are weaponized, because the North continues to be a "difficult intelligence target."

How Big Is the GBU-43?

How big is the GBU-43 bomb that the U.S. dropped today on an ISIS tunnel complex in Afganistan?

It's more than 10 times bigger than the next biggest bomb in the U.S. conventional arsenal, but not big at all compared to a nuclear weapon.

Hans Kristensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists, said the explosive power of even the smallest U.S. nuke, the B-61 bomb, is "an order of magnitude" larger than the GBU-43.

"The smallest nuclear weapon in the U.S. arsenal has an explosive yield of 0.3 kilotons of TNT, meaning 300 tons. This bomb, at 21,000 pounds, is only 10 tons. It doesn't come close," said Kristensen. "Even the biggest conventional bomb we can load onto a plane is miniscule."

The B-61 bomb, only deployed in Europe, is a tactical weapon that can be used to destroy city centers or large-scale troop concentrations.

The GBU-43, also know as a MOAB (Massive Ordnance Air Blast) is also about half the size of the smallest U.S. nuke ever built, the Davy Crockett artillery shell, which was retired in the 1960's.

Ironically, Thursday's bombing occurs during a defense community debate on whether to build smaller nukes. "We have people arguing for new mini nukes," said Kristensen. "Here you have a case where the U.S. felt all it needed was a conventional whopper."

Image: GBU-43/B Massive Ordnance Air Blast bomb
The GBU-43/B Massive Ordnance Air Blast bomb in an image provided by Eglin Air Force Base. The Pentagon says U.S. forces in Afghanistan dropped the military's largest non-nuclear bomb on an Islamic State target in Afghanistan. A Pentagon spokesman said it was the first-ever combat use of the bomb, known as the GBU-43, which he said contains 11 tons of explosives. The Air Force calls it the Massive Ordnance Air Blast bomb. Based on the acronym, it has been nicknamed the "Mother Of All Bombs." Eglin Air Force Base via AP