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The Early Edition: April 25, 2017

Before the start of business, Just Security provides a curated summary of up-to-the-minute developments at home and abroad. Here’s today’s news.


North Korea conducted large-scale military live-fire drills today to mark the foundation of its military as US submarine the USS Michigan docked in South Korea in a show of force and envoys from the US, Japan and South Korea met in Tokyo to discuss the growing threat posed by North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missiles program, Ju-min Park reports at Reuters.

The missile-armed USS Michigan will join an incoming group of warships led by aircraft carrier Carl Vinson, the BBC reports.

An unusual private briefing on North Korea involving the entire Senate will be held Wednesday, the White House announced yesterday, David Nakamura, Simon Denyer and Anna Fifield report at the Washington Post.

Lawmakers will be briefed tomorrow by several administration officials including the Secretary of State and the Defense Secretary ahead of the meeting, which will take place at the White House, perplexing lawmakers who are used to meeting in more secure settings such as the Pentagon and prompting speculation that the meeting will be used by the Trump administration as a photo op ahead of its 100-day mark, write David Nakamura and Ed O’Keefe at the Washington Post.

“The status quo in North Korea is unacceptable and the council must be prepared to impose additional and stronger sanctions on North Korean nuclear and ballistic missile programs.” President Trump underlined US resolve to stop North Korea’s progress at a lunch meeting with UN ambassadors yesterday, Julian Borger reports at the Guardian.

Pentagon officials were caught unawares by UN ambassador Nikki Haley’s announcement of an apparent red line that would prompt a preemptive US strike on North Korea on NBC News yesterday, Kimberly Dozier and Benny Avni write at The Daily Beast.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will chair a special meeting of the UN Security Council on North Korea Friday in New York, spokesperson Mark Toner explaining that the meeting will give council members an opportunity to discuss ways to “maximize the impact of existing Security Council measures” and demonstrate that they intend to respond to future provocations with “appropriate new measures.” Mark Hensch reports at the Hill.

The Trump administration’s “sudden urgency” in dealing with North Korea was prompted by an increase in the pace of North Korea’s nuclear program indicated by a growing body of expert studies and classified intelligence reports but impossible to verify without access to North Korea’s facilities, write David E. Sanger and William J. Broad at the New York Times.

The Japanese government issued “new actions to protect yourself” guidelines this week including instructions on what to do if a North Korean ballistic missile is headed toward Japan, reports Anna Fifield at the Washington Post.

Trump’s increased risk-taking on North Korea can pay off, Jon Wolfsthal at Foreign Policy explaining how this “classic game of chicken” in which the driver is willing to appear irrational in order to gain an advantage may be producing results, with reports indicating that China is leaning on Pyongyang harder than it has done in years and that Japan is preparing to deal with a post-conflict or post-collapse North Korea.


President Trump labeled the UN an “underperformer” but with “tremendous potential” yesterday at the start of his working lunch with Security Council ambassadors, adding that if the UN did a good job his budget concerns might diminish to some extent. Louis Nelson writes at POLITICO.

President Trump didn’t know a lot about NATO when he called it “obsolete” last year, the President explained to the AP yesterday. Continue Reading »

UN Counterterrorism Reform Overlooks Crucial Partner


Only a few weeks into his tenure as UN Secretary-General, Antonió Gutteres has been under pressure to fix the UN’s efforts to deal with terrorism and violent extremism. The programs he inherited are badly disorganized, while the threats are increasingly undermining not only international peace and security, but also the development goals at the top of his agenda. Gutteres is trying, but he is hindered by a clutch of UN Member States who are clinging to outmoded and heavy-handed counterterrorism methods. These countries are unwilling to take necessary action and pursue the strategic course corrections needed to get ahead of the problem. While some of these problems – like radicalization — start at the community level, many are fueled by security institutions, which will only be emboldened further if the efforts remain narrowly focused on counterterrorism.

Gutteres laid out part of his plan earlier this month when he presented a new report, titled, “Capability of the United Nations system to assist Member states in implementing the United Nations Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy” to the General Assembly (UNGA). The report highlights how the UN’s role in both counterterrorism and now preventing violent extremism (PVE) has expanded over the past 15 years as a result of increased demands from national capitals. The report also included his much-anticipated recommendations to the UNGA on ways to strengthen the UN’s hydra-headed, increasingly sprawling counterterrorism and PVE architecture. Currently, counterterrorism and PVE at the UN involve more than 35 UN entities spread out across peace and security, development, and human rights silos within the organization. Some are mandated by the UNGA, others by the Security Council, and still others report to independent governing boards. There is no recognized senior UN official whose full-time job is to coordinate the UN’s labyrinthine system. The head of the UN’s interagency, Counter-Terrorism Implementation Task Force, is also the Under-Secretary for Political Affairs, which means he can only dedicate a fraction of his time to this area of work.

The new proposal from Gutteres focuses on the creation of a “office of counterterrorism” to be headed by an Under-Secretary General for counterterrorism, with five main objectives: 1) more leadership; 2) more coordination, coherence, and collaboration among the alphabet soup of relevant UN entities; 3) more effective UN capacity-building assistance to Member States; 4) more resources for the UN in this area; and 5) more attention to counterterrorism across the UN system and that UN PVE efforts are “firmly rooted” in the UN Global Strategy. The ball is now in the General Assembly’s court to decide what action to take on these proposals. The decisions are expected later this spring.

There is a lot to applaud here, but there is bad news too. The good news is that despite the long-standing, and well-publicized, inability of UN Member States to agree on a definition of terrorism, there now appears to be broad support for the steps the UN should take to enhance collaboration and cooperation among its many entities working to counter terrorism and prevent violent extremism. There is also general consensus regarding the need for a senior full-time UN official to spearhead the institution’s efforts in this area.  Continue Reading »

National Security-Related Congressional Hearings, April 24-April 28

Tuesday, April 25

9:30am – Senate Committee on Armed Services – Policy and Strategy in the Asia-Pacific (here)

9:45am – Senate Committee on Foreign Relations – The Crisis in Libya: Next Steps and U.S. Policy Options (here)

2:15pm – Senate Committee on Intelligence – Intelligence Matters (Closed) (here)

Wednesday, April 26

10:00am – Senate Committee on Intelligence – Nomination of Courtney Simmons Elwood to be General Counsel of the Central Intelligence Agency (here)

10:00am – House Judiciary Committee – Oversight of the Federal Bureau of Prisons and the U.S. Marshals Service (here)

10:00am – House Committee on Armed Services – Military Assessment of the Security Challenges in the Indo-Asia-Pacific Region (here)

1:30pm – Senate Committee on Foreign Relations – Nominations (here)

2:00pm – House Committee on Armed Services – Creating a Flexible and Effective Information Technology Management and Acquisition System: Elements for Success in a Rapidly Changing Landscape (here)

Thursday, April 27

9:30am – Senate Committee on Armed Services – United States Pacific Command and United States Forces Korea (here)

10:00am – House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform – The Border Wall: Strengthening our National Security (here)

10:00am – House Committee on Foreign Affairs – Syria After the Missile Strikes: Policy Options (here)

10:00am – House Committee on Armed Services – Member Day (here)

2:00pm – Senate Committee on Intelligence – Intelligence Matters (Closed) (here)

2:00pm – House Committee on Armed Services – Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder/Traumatic Brain Injury (here)

2:00pm – House Committee on Financial Services –Safeguarding the Financial System from Terrorist Financing (here)

2:00pm – House Committee on Foreign Affairs – Afghanistan’s Terrorist Resurgence: Al-Qaeda, ISIS, and Beyond (here)

2:30pm – Senate Committee on Armed Services – Cyber-enabled Information Operations (here)

U.S. Military Justice and “Operational Mishaps”: A Primer

As the tempo and intensity of United States military operations increases, the likelihood of operational mishaps increases as well. These mishaps – an anodyne term that cannot capture the reality experienced by those on the receiving end – can have devastating effects on innocent civilians and are highly likely to erode existing support and, indeed, to inflame passions both locally and around the globe. Attention typically focuses on whether these tragic events constitute war crimes, implicating the Law of Armed Conflict when questions such as targeting military objects, proportionality in loss of civilian life, and the avoidance of unnecessary suffering take center stage. This is understandable but slights the more mundane question of whether they constitute domestic military offenses under the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ). As Geoffrey Corn and Rachel VanLandingham have pointed out, the UCMJ sets a higher standard of conduct than the Law of Armed Conflict. A primer may therefore be helpful for those who are unfamiliar with the somewhat arcane field of military justice or whose understanding of it may be rusty, incomplete or both.

First, some basics about offenses under the UCMJ. These are prescribed by so-called “punitive articles.” Many of them set forth familiar crimes, such as murder, manslaughter, assault, arson, and sexual offenses of various types. Others are peculiar to the armed forces, such as disobedience, disrespect, AWOL, desertion, and mutiny. One that we will return to in a moment is dereliction of duty. There are also two wild-card offenses that sweep in a host of offenses. These are Article 133, which criminalizes conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman, and Article 134, which criminalizes conduct that is prejudicial to good order and discipline or service-discrediting as well as other noncapital federal crimes.

War crimes as such do not figure in any of the UCMJ’s punitive articles. Indeed, the only reference to war crimes in the UCMJ is found in the jurisdictional provision of Article 18(a), which confers on general courts-martial (the most severe form of court-martial) authority to try offenses under the law of war by persons who are subject to military trial under the law of war. In point of fact, American practice is not to exercise that authority against either our own personnel or enemy combatants. For our own personnel, we simply rely on the substantive punitive articles. For enemy combatants we have relied on military commissions such as those now authorized by the Military Commissions Act of 2009, which is not part of the UCMJ. Thus, the 1942 German saboteurs were charged with war crimes as well as violations of the Articles of War (predecessor of the UCMJ). War crimes are also among the charges against the 9/11 and USS Cole accuseds who are currently on trial at Guantanamo.

That said, let’s define the issue. Continue Reading »

U.S.-Supported Government in Yemen Has Ties to Al-Qaeda


Defense secretary Jim Mattis has described Syria as “the most complex civil war probably raging on the planet at this time,” but Yemen is giving it a run for its money. In both places, the line between adversary and ally is not easily drawn, which puts the United States at risk of unintentionally furthering the cause of some of its worst enemies. In the case of Yemen, this means al-Qaeda.

In their fight against Yemen’s Houthi rebels, the government of Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi, and its Saudi backers, have worked with local actors with suspected ties to al-Qaeda. Sometimes this means the targets being tracked by the US are actually cutting deals and getting their hands on weapons thanks to connections they have with the Hadi government and the Saudi-led coalition, to which the US provides support. Laying bare these thorny battlefield alliances in Yemen is crucial as the Trump administration considers stepping up US military involvement in the country.

Background to the conflicts

There are two wars in Yemen in which the United States is involved. The first war is the longstanding US counterterrorism fight against al-Qaeda’s branch in Yemen, which is commonly referred to as Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Since Trump took office, US drone strikes and raids against the group have increased, and in certain areas of the country, the rules put in place to prevent civilian casualties have been loosened. US interest in defeating al-Qaeda, particularly this branch of the group, which is known for its bomb-making abilities and its intent to carry out attacks against the West, is unambiguous.

But America’s counterterrorism fight in Yemen is also taking place against the backdrop of a messy civil war that has ballooned into a regional conflict. On one side is the internationally recognized government of Hadi, which was overthrown in January 2015. Supporting him is a military coalition led by Saudi Arabia, with the United Arab Emirates also playing a major role. The Saudi-led coalition and Hadi government forces are fighting the Houthi rebels, a militant group based out of northern Yemen that practices an offshoot of Shia Islam called Zaydism, putting them at odds with Yemen’s south, which is largely Sunni. Since the conflict started, Iran has supplied the rebels with arms shipments and other support. Yemen’s former president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, is also allied with the Houthi rebels. Saleh was ousted in 2011 during the Arab Spring after three decades in power, and replaced by Hadi, who at the time was vice president. The Houthi-Saleh alliance is not a natural fit, as they have their own history of warring against each other from the days when Saleh was in power.  

Complicating this battlefield are AQAP and ISIS, who are also fighting the Houthis on the ground. This means both terrorist organizations, the Saudi-led coalition and the Hadi government all share a common enemy.  Continue Reading »

The Early Edition: April 24, 2017

Before the start of business, Just Security provides a curated summary of up-to-the-minute developments at home and abroad. Here’s today’s news.


China’s President Xi Jinping urged President Trump to exercise restraint in a call today as the USS Carl Vinson carrier group headed for North Korea, a deployment North Korea said was “an extremely dangerous act by those who plan a nuclear war to invade the North.” Ben Blanchard and Ju-min Park report at Reuters.

North Korea is “ready to sink” the USS Carl Vinson “with a single strike,” North Korean state media warned today, the BBC reporting.

The Pentagon called on North Korea to “refrain from provocative, destabilizing actions and rhetoric” yesterday and to fulfil its international obligations and return to serious discussions, calling the Pyongyang regime’s nuclear weapons program a “clear, grave threat to US national security.” Eli Watkins and Jamie Crawford report at CNN.

South Korea and its allies are preparing for the possibility that North Korea will launch an intercontinental ballistic missile for the first time or conduct another nuclear test tomorrow as it marks the founding anniversary of its military, Kim Tong-Hyung reports at the AP.

American citizen Professor Tony Kim has been arrested in Pyongyang, the third US citizen known to have been detained by North Korea in recent months and an episode likely to serve as another flashpoint with the US at a time of heightened tensions with North Korea, suggests Jonathan Cheng at the Wall Street Journal.

President Trump will have to face a nuclear-armed North Korea with missiles capable of reaching the US during his first term, Department of Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly said yesterday, Mallory Shelbourne reporting at the Hill.

China’s worry that US-North Korea tensions could escalate into outright military conflict are reflected by President Xi’s reported words of caution to President Trump by phone today, Beijing-time, writes Chris Buckley at the New York Times.

The best move for the US now would be to open direct talks with Pyongyang that begin by negotiating a halt on nuclear tests and missiles in return for at least considering North Korea’s demand for suspension of joint military exercises with South Korea, suggests John Delury at the Washington Post, pointing out that there is no way to launch a pre-emptive strike on North Korea without being hit back harder, or without avoiding the deaths of the ten million people who live in Seoul.

“Secondary sanctions” on those who do business with the regime. In dealing with North Korea, the Trump administration should take a look at former president Obama’s approach to sanctioning in order to get Iran to come to the nuclear negotiating table, suggests David S. Cohen writing at the Washington Post.


President Trump’s team has repeatedly slammed Iran despite acknowledging that it has complied with the nuclear deal Trump has repeatedly railed against, observes Rebecca Kheel at the Hill.

The Trump administration’s propensity for demonizing Iran and misrepresenting the threat it poses risks an unnecessary and perilous confrontation, writes the New York Times editorial board. Continue Reading »

Recap of Recent Posts on Just Security (Apr. 14-21)

I. U.S. Intervention in Syria

II. Yemen: U.S. Support to Saudi Arabia

III. Norms Watch

IV. The Law of War: Mother of All Bombs and the Rules of Engagement

V. North Korea

VI. The Travel Ban and Islamophobia

VII. Border Security and Immigration

VIII. Human Rights: Ukraine and Falun Gong 

IX. Women, Peace, and Security

X. Whistleblowing 

Making Sense of the Allegations that U.S. Military Struck a Mosque in Syria

There are now two very different competing pictures about whether the United States mistakenly struck a mosque in Syria on the night of March 16, 2017. On one view, based on  three independent reports—by Human Rights Watch, Bellingcat, and the University of London’s Forensic Architecture—along with some supplemental information from AirWars and White Helmets, the U.S. military struck the Umar Ibn Al-Khattab Mosque in Aleppo killing at least 38 civilians, including 5 children. That’s obviously not the current official U.S. view, but the government has not done enough to counter it.

Secretary James Mattis and the Department of Defense should now make every effort to get out in front of this issue. Given the reputation of the organizations reporting on the strike, this incident will fester in the minds of current and former U.S. personnel who are not familiar with the intelligence or the details of the operation, and it will damage U.S. credibility right when the U.S. is pressuring Syria for its attacks on civilians.

To its credit, the Department of Defense did well to acknowledge the operation and to launch an investigation into the reported civilian casualties. But the willingness of the Department and unnamed officials to make some statements about the incident but not clear up other issues leaves much to be desired.

There’s obviously a delicate balance here, which includes protecting intelligence information, handling the pace of other urgent military matters, and making sure any investigation has the time and patience needed to reach determinations with sufficient clarity before making more conclusive public statements. Still, the current state of limbo on the alleged “mosque strike” is coming at a price.

Very soon after the operation, the Pentagon released a powerful aerial photograph showing that “a mosque” was left undamaged by the bombing. That image at least had people like me quite convinced. Since then, however, the three independent reports have been released identifying, in their account, a second mosque—the building that the U.S. military targeted and partially demolished. On the basis of their findings, for example, Airwars wrote: “Central to the disparity in accounts was an apparent American determination that because they had identified one mosque, the building across the street – which was in fact a larger, newer mosque – couldn’t be one as well.” Continue Reading »

Norms Watch: Tracking the Erosion of Democratic Traditions (Apr. 14-21)

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As Turkey slides deeper into authoritarianism, Trump congratulates Erdogan on his referendum victory, and Attorney General Jeff Sessions undermines judicial constraint of Trump’s presidential power. A missing aircraft carrier leaves a US Senator and a key US ally and concerned about misinformation and reliability of the US military under Trump.


Trump Congratulates Turkish President Erdogan on Expansion of Power

On Monday, President Donald Trump called Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to congratulate him on his recent referendum victory that will “cement his autocratic rule over the country and, in the view of many experts, erode Turkey’s democratic institutions” according to the New York Times. While the White House has since claimed that the call was not intended as an endorsement of the outcome, or even an acceptance of the results, critics have pointed to Trump’s history of praising Erdogan’s anti-democratic policies.

The call also raised concerns that Trump’s financial ties to Turkey are influencing relations with Erdogan. In a tweet from 2012, Ivanka Trump thanked the Turkish president for attending the launch of Trump Towers Istanbul. And in 2015, Trump himself stated, “I have a little conflict of interest because I have a major, major building in Istanbul.” Continue Reading »

US Seeks New Assurances from Saudis on Civilian Casualties—but is that even possible?

The Trump administration is reportedly seeking a new set of assurances from Saudi Arabia that it will minimize civilian casualties in its air campaign in Yemen—but would those assurances be credible? The effort to get new safeguards in place is now part of the process of determining whether to renew a sale of precision guided missiles to Saudi Arabia, Reuters’ Warren Strobel and Arshad Mohammed report. In December, the Obama administration suspended the weapons sale out of a concern for massive loss of civilian life from Saudi airstrikes.

I have previously written about the risk of individual liability for US officials in potentially aiding and abetting war crimes through arms transfers. And I have written about the types of assurances—or “mitigation measures”—that a legal opinion by the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel suggests could minimize or eliminate those types of legal risks.

In the case of the Saudis, however, a satisfactory reduction of the legal risk may be difficult, if not impossible, to achieve in the current environment. First, consider the systemic problems in Saudi targeting operations discussed by a former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense. He wrote: Continue Reading »