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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 

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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 »

Letter to the Editor: Whistleblower Protections Are Getting Stronger


The March 2 article on Just Security by Patrick Eddington, titled “Whistleblower Retaliation: A Governmental Accountability and National Security Crisis,” certainly captures not only the issues that bona fide whistleblowers have to live through after engaging in “protected activity,” but also the challenges those who investigate reprisal allegations, both within the Defense Department and Intelligence Community (IC), face by virtue of the role they serve. As a primer, Eddington’s article is an outstanding historical representation for those who wish to understand how this area of law and policy has been shaped, particularly since 2012, as well as the ongoing challenges both whistleblowers and the investigative entities themselves face as the program matures.

We disagree, however, with Eddington’s position on our recent article, where we stated that, “it is only through cases like Ellard’s that senior officials will be forced to realize that reprisal comes with consequences and that seniority will have no bearing on an investigation’s outcome.” Eddington describes this as “magical thinking,” but that view is defeated by facts, our own casework and professional experiences, as well as our recent legal victories. For full disclosure, many of the individuals identified in Eddington’s article, as well as the author, we have either represented as legal counsel, worked for or with, or investigated their complaints of whistleblower reprisal.

Eddington makes it clear that both the Defense as well as the IC whistleblower investigation programs have endured a great deal, which is best represented by the story of Dan Meyer, who exposed wrongdoing and faced retaliation because of it. Meyer, who is the executive director of the Intelligence Community Whistleblowing and Source Protection program, exposed attempts by DoD IG officials manipulating a final version of a report about an investigation into allegations that Leon Panetta, in his capacity as CIA Director, “had leaked classified information to the makers of the film Zero Dark Thirty.” Eddington’s article says Meyer made these claims public in July 2016, and it is true Meyer himself experienced reprisal. However, the actual events occurred a number of years ago, and have since been addressed not only appropriately but resolved favorably. Moreover, Meyer’s disclosure about the DoD IG officials manipulating the report was substantiated by a CIA IG investigation. Finally, as it pertains to the Defense Department IG, we currently represent numerous whistleblowers within the Whistleblower Reprisal Investigations Directorate. Accordingly, we are fully aware of the issues involved and are successfully creating forcing-functions to enable the DoD IG to correct any and all deficiencies.  Continue Reading »

The Early Edition: April 21, 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.


The UN Security Council strongly condemned North Korea’s latest missile test, demanding that North Korea “conduct no further nuclear tests” and, in a hardening of the Council’s stance, threatening to “take further significant measures including sanctions” in a unanimous statement yesterday, AFP reports.

China’s efforts to rein in “the menace of North Korea” were praised by President Trump yesterday, Steve Holland and Phil Stewart report at Reuters.

China has put its military forces on “high alert” over North Korea’s increasing threats to strike pre-emptively, a US defense official told CNN’s Ryan Browne and Elise Labott.

South Korea is also on high alert as North Korea prepares to mark the 85th anniversary of the foundation of the Korean People’s Army on Tuesday amid concerns that Pyongyang will use the occasion to launch another nuclear test, Ju-min Park and Ben Blanchard report at Reuters.

Reports that Russia is moving troops to its border with North Korea were denied by Russian authorities, the AP reports.

State lawmakers in Hawaii have formally requested that the Department of Defense assist with the state’s nuclear disaster preparedness as tensions between the US and North Korea escalate, Adrienne Lafrance reports at The Atlantic.

“Why the panic now?” While North Korea has had nuclear weapons for over a decade, it’s currently heading for a nuclear breakout – and it’s not bluffing. Charles Krauthammer at the Washington Post explains why deterrence is futile, and prevention’s best hope is that the Chinese exercise their influence, something they may be willing to do now for a variety of reasons.

A pre-emptive strike by the US on North Korea would be “reckless beyond belief” and even creating the impression that he might strike is a dangerous move by President Trump that may prompt North Korean leader Kim Jong-un to order his own pre-emptive nuclear attack. The Economist argues that Trump should cool his rhetoric immediately.

“Bellicose rhetoric, hollow threats, contradictory voice and little coordination with allies.” The Trump administration is testing its worrying foreign policy approach on “the most difficult foreign policy problem of all,” North Korea, writes Fareed Zakaria at the Washington Post.

Even the US military’s most seasoned commanders can fail to consider the wider political or strategic implications of operational decisions, with episodes such as the ordering of the USS Carl Vinson to “sail north” from Singapore this month, given without any awareness of the larger – and incorrect – impression that a naval strike force was being rushed to confront North Korea potentially set to multiply with Trump’s decision to release the military from Obama administration constraints and intensify the fight against terrorism, write Eric Schmitt and Helene Cooper at the New York Times.


Iran is “not living up to the spirit” of the nuclear deal, President Trump said yesterday during a joint press conference with his Italian counterpart Paolo Gentiloni, adding that “we’re analyzing [the deal] very, very carefully and we’ll have something to say about it in the not-too-distant future.” Felicia Schwartz and Rebecca Ballhaus report at the Wall Street Journal.

Iran and its ally Hezbollah are working together to destabilize the Middle East, the US ambassador to the UN and current Security Council president Nikki Haley said yesterday, a charge Iran’s UN envoy “categorically” denied. Edith M. Lederer reports at the AP.

Iran’s presidential race next month will mainly serve as a referendum on the 2015 nuclear deal with world powers, writes the AP, taking a look at the final list of candidates.

Rhetoric and reality are once again at odds with each other in the Trump administration’s stance(s) on the Iran nuclear deal, but the “heady days of the campaign are over, and the President needs a policy review on Iran that contends with the reality that foreign policy is complicated, writes Jonathan Marcus at the BBC.


The US military will not play a direct role in helping stabilize Libya, President Trump announced yesterday following a meeting in Washington with Italian Prime Minister Gentiloni despite Gentolini’s pleas for the US to increase its “critical” involvement in the war-torn country, though he did not rule out US involvement in ousting Islamic militants from Libya and neighboring countries. Glenn Thrush reports at the New York Times. Continue Reading »

The ICJ Issues Provisional Measures Against Russia on Ukraine’s Racial Discrimination Claims


Russian media are reporting that the International Court of Justice (ICJ) “rejected” Ukraine’s request for provisional measures against the Russian Federation in the case Ukraine filed recently before the Court (my backgrounders are here, here, and here).  Not surprisingly perhaps, these outlets are peddling an incomplete account.

While the ICJ did decline to issue provisional measures under the International Convention for the Suppression of the Financing of Terrorism (ICSFT), it did in fact issue provisional measures with respect to the Ukrainian claims founded on the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD). The full opinion is here.

In this regard, the ICJ—citing reports of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights—found that the Crimean Tatars and ethnic Ukrainians in Crimea remain vulnerable when it comes to their full enjoyment of the political, civil, economic, social, and cultural rights set forth in Article 5 of CERD. In its order on provisional measures (akin to an injunction, which is issued prior to the Court reaching the full merits), the ICJ directed Russia to  Continue Reading »

The Pragmatic Reasons For Strict Rules of Engagement



As a presidential candidate, Donald Trump voiced his support for deliberately targeting the families of terrorists. Fortunately, he has not adopted this policy as president. But he has nonetheless demonstrated a proclivity for eased rules of engagement on the battlefield and intensified military strikes. Various groups have recently raised questions about an alleged rise in civilian casualties from US airstrikes in Iraq and Syria. The Trump administration has, moreover, reportedly approved changes that will allow looser targeting rules in parts of Somalia and Yemen, where airstrikes have apparently increased significantly. And in a memorandum demanding a new plan for defeating ISIS, Trump asked the Pentagon for “recommended changes to any United States rules of engagement and other United States policy restrictions that exceed the requirements of international law regarding the use of force,” a request that suggests he is willing to walk dangerously close to legal boundaries.

When recently asked about whether he specifically authorized the use of the most powerful non-nuclear bomb in the US arsenal in Afghanistan, Trump explained that he has given the military “total authorization.” This comment indicates that he will largely defer to the military on targeting procedures and rules of engagement. If that’s the case, the military has an opportunity to depart from Trump’s freewheeling attitude and avoid an unnecessary slackening of rules. In addition to the compelling legal and moral reasons, military leaders should consider several more pragmatic arguments for strict rules of engagement that can protect commanders and the soldiers who serve under them.

First, although many argue that relaxed rules of engagement will liberate the military, allowing it to fight wars with the so-called “gloves off,” rigorous rules can also augment warfighter effectiveness by enhancing mental fitness. Civilian casualties in war, even with restrictive rules of engagement, are as inevitable as they are regrettable. Having served as an intelligence officer for two deployments to Afghanistan, I remember several instances when airstrikes ordered by my units caused unintentional civilian casualties. In a time-sensitive situation, I personally reviewed and vouched for the intelligence that led to one of these incidents. When I learned of the result, it felt like a moral stomach punch. But I found relief in the knowledge that we had, in good faith, followed rules that were designed to prevent civilian casualties. In a way, this liberated me from cumbersome fears that we had committed a moral or legal transgression, and it helped me to continue my mission in sound conscience.  Continue Reading »

The Early Edition: April 20, 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.


“We’re not trying to pick a fight so don’t try and give us one,” US ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley relayed a message for North Korea via reporters yesterday, Edith M. Lederer reporting at the AP.

The US cannot rule out using military force against North Korea, House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) said during a visit to Britain yesterday, William James reporting at Reuters.

North Korea’s state media warned the US of a “super-mighty preemptive strike” following Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s comment that America is looking at ways to put pressure on Kim Jong-un’s regime over its missile testing, Ju-min Park reports at Reuters.

Three volleyball games captured in full swing in satellite images of North Korea’s nuclear test site were probably intended to send a message, analysts say, while what that message was meant to be remains unclear. William J. Broad reports at the New York Times.

Russia vetoed a proposed UN Security Council statement condemning North Korea’s latest missile test and telling North Korea not to conduct any further tests that was tabled by the US, CNN’s Euan McKirdy and Richard Roth report.

China has “a unique and specific role to play” in putting pressure on North Korea to stop its “illegal behavior,” Australia’s Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said in Tokyo today, adding that Australia intends to work with Japan, South Korea, the US and China to ensure that “china use its unique position.” Mari Yamaguchi reports at the AP.

The USS Carl Vinson is finally heading to North Korea, the commander of Carrier Strike Group One telling those onboard yesterday that the deployment has been extended 30 days “to provide a persistent presence in the waters off the Korean Peninsula,” Simon Denyer and Emily Rauhala report at the Washington Post.

The White House did not mislead allies about the destination of the USS Carl Vinson and its strike group, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer insisted yesterday, while the Pentagon acknowledged that it “communicated this badly.” Ben Kesling, Gordon Lubold and Jonathan Cheng report at the Wall Street Journal.

The revelation that the USS Carl Vinson was not heading to North Korea after all was met with ridicule in some parts of Asia and suspicion in others, Chun Han Wong, Jonathan Cheng and Alastair Gale report at the Wall Street Journal.

South Korea felt “bewildered, cheated and manipulated” by its most important ally the US, raising the question of whether America’s allies were even told of the aircraft carrier’s whereabouts – and whether the misinformation will undercut President Trump’s strategy to curtail North Korea’s nuclear ambitions with empty threats. Choe Sang-Hun writes at the New York Times.

“Dangerous buffoonery.” Richard Wolffe berates the “small-time businessman who knew nothing about foreign affairs” who now “bluffs and blusters” his way through international crises, now revealed as a “fool” for misstating the mission and location of an entire aircraft carrier group at the Guardian.

Trump’s talk on North Korea is altering how the region sees the long-running conflict, Kim Tong-Hyung explaining how the President has shaken up the Koreas and their neighbors, nation by nation, at the Washington Post.

President Trump is making a big mistake if he thinks that threatening military strikes and increased sanctions will persuade North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons. Joel S. Wit, senior fellow at the US-Korea Institute at John Hopkins University and the founder of website 38North explains how to defuse the crisis with North Korea at the New York Times.

The spectre of a President Trump angered by public snickering at the emptiness of his threats and tempted to show his muscle “blundering into a new Korean war” is faced by Nicholas Kristof writing at the New York Times.

The choice is between war with North Korea and Kim Jong-un “sitting on a warhead that can take out Chicago,” suggests General Rob Givens writing at The Daily Beast.

The “striking similarities” between Kim Jong-un’s regime in North Korea and Bashar al-Assad’s in Syria are explored by Zahra Ullah and Ivan Watson at CNN.


Secretary of State Rex Tillerson accused Iran of “alarming and ongoing provocations” in a statement yesterday, the BBC reports. Continue Reading »

Fear and Loathing at DHS: Kelly Resorts to Trump Administration Fear Tactics


Department of Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly delivered a speech Tuesday that was stunning for its indifference to facts, accountability, and democratic oversight. Kelly is a tough, former four-star Marine general who thought maintaining the prison in Guantanamo was the right policy. But as the head of Southern Command, he was also renowned for his effective work south of the border, where he emphasized the need for human security and smart border policies. With his speech Tuesday, it’s beginning to appear that, in joining the Trump administration, he may be leaving behind his track record for excellence.

“We live in a dangerous world,” he said Tuesday at George Washington University. “Those dangers are increasing, and changing speed and direction every single day… We are a nation under attack.”

Well, sort of. The world as a whole is in the midst of the longest decrease in violence in history. Wars kill 90 percent fewer people today than anytime since World War II. Conflicts that kill over a thousand people are down by 70 percent since the end of the Cold War. Homicides have been falling globally for years. In the United States, homicides are at an all-time modern low of 4.4 per 100,000.

America hasn’t been this safe since the 1950s.

Of course, it’s always possible to improve. But Kelly’s admonitions – that elected officials either change the laws or “shut up and support the men and women on the front lines,” isn’t going to help.  Continue Reading »