The Early Edition: March 6, 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.

TRUMP’s WIRETAP CLAIMS

FBI Director James Comey asked the Justice Department to publicly rebuke claims by President Trump that then-president Obama ordered the tapping of his phones, Michael S. Schmidt and Michael D. Shear report at the New York Times.

The House Intelligence Committee will investigate any alleged surveillance of political parties as part of its investigation into Russian meddling in the presidential election, Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) said yesterday, Mallory Shelbourne reporting at the Hill.

It’s likely there was surveillance of Trump Tower, but it’s incorrect to accuse the former president of ordering it, Bush administration attorney general Michael Mukasey said in an interview yesterday. Mallory Shelbourne reports at the Hill.

If the FBI wiretapped Trump Tower it means they thought they would uncover evidence of criminal activity, and a judge agreed, suggests Mieke Eoyang at POLITICO MAGAZINE.

There are legally two ways to obtain a wiretap warrant in the US: a criminal warrant or a foreign intelligence warrant, either of which, if used, would give rise to potentially significant questions for the Trump administration, explain Ari Melber and Phil McCausland at NBC News.

Trump could immediately make public any government records of the wiretapping under his presidential power to declassify anything at any time, and if he and his associates did nothing wrong, he has every incentive to do so as soon as possible, Jon Schwarz points out at The Intercept.

The brawl over Russia, the Trump campaign and US intelligence has reached the stage where basic questions about US institutions and trust in government are at stake, observes the Wall Street Journal editorial board.

Trump’s “astonishing and reckless” accusation that he was wiretapped on orders from former President Obama should be the final tipping point in how the country views its president, writes E. J. Dionne Jr. at the Washington Post.

The TRUMP CABINET’S RELATIONSHIP WITH RUSSIA

A letter to White House Counsel Don McGahn asking for details of communications between his office, the FBI and the Justice Department concerning the FBI’s ongoing review of Russian interference in the presidential election will be sent by several Democrats today, the Hill’s Cyra Master reports.

Unless the nominee for deputy attorney general promises to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate Russia’s alleged interference in the presidential election member of the Senate Judiciary Committee Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) will block his appointment, Blumenthal tweeted last night.

The D.H.S. began preparing a nationwide warning about foreign intelligence officials trying to extract information from US government officials at conferences and other functions the day that Trump advisers mingled with the Russian ambassador at a conference near the Republican National Convention last year, writes Jana Winter at The Daily Beast.

TRUMP ADMINISTRATION FOREIGN POLICY

A US delegation led by Republican Congressperson Ron DeSantis (R-Fl.) was in Israel over the weekend exploring the possibility of relocating the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, Tovah Lazaroff reports at the Jerusalem Post.

Israel received a “direct message” from the US administration that annexing the West Bank would lead to an immediate crisis between Israel and America, Israel’s Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman told lawmakers today. Jonathan Lis reports at HAARETZ.

In the absence of a coherent national strategy for defense, arbitrary increases in the defense budget could make the world a more dangerous place, Caitlin Talmadge writes at the New York Times.

Trump doesn’t seem to get much about the huge and apocalyptically deadly nuclear arsenal he commands, the latest example being his attitude toward the New Start Treaty designed to limit the nuclear arsenals of the US and Russia, writes the New York Times editorial board.

US allies and adversaries may do as much to shape President Trump’s foreign policy as his officials in Washington, suggests Jackson Diehl at the Washington Post.

Trump’s drive to kill free trade will rob the world of a highly effective deterrent to war. Dan Kopf explains how trade agreements are rarely about economics alone at QUARTZ.

When it comes to foreign policy, Vice President Mike Pence is succeeding on all fronts: his direct relationship with President Trump, his collating of a personal portfolio of issues, and the effectiveness of the team around him, concludes Josh Rogin at the Washington Post.

The “curious case of Sebastian Gorka,” President Trump’s new “terrorism guru” and a member of Stephen Bannon’s internal White House think-tank the Strategic Initiatives Group is examined by Colin Kahl at Foreign Policy.

The MUSLIM BAN

A new version of President Trump’s executive order temporarily banning entry to the US by travelers from a list of Muslim majority countries is expected to be issued today, this time excluding Iraq and removing the extra restrictions on Syrian refugees, Ron Nixon and Maggie Haberman report at the New York Times.

SYRIA

Us-backed rebel forces cut off the last main road out of the Islamic State-held city of Raqqa today, Tom Perry reports at Reuters.

The US built up its forces near the northern Syrian town of Manbij over the weekend amid increasing concerns that fighting could break out among the complex assortment of militias and Syrian and Turkish troops in the area, Michael R. Gordon reports at the New York Times.

The Pentagon’s plan for the upcoming operation to oust the Islamic State from Raqqa calls for significant US military participation including increased Special Operations forces, attack helicopters and artillery and arms supplies to the main Syrian Kurdish and Arab force on the ground there, Karen DeYoung and Liz Sly report at the Washington Post.

IRAQ

Iraqi forces captured the al-Hurriya Bridge over the River Tigris in Mosul, the second of five bridges to be recaptured as part of the operation to remove the Islamic State from the Iraqi city, the BBC reports.

Iraqi forces entered the deadliest parts of Mosul this weekend, nearly three weeks into the last phase of the operation to retake the city, Martin Chulov reports at the Guardian.

CHINA

There is less to China’s suspension of coal imports from North Korea than meets the eye, suggests the Wall Street Journal editorial board.

While China may cooperate with the Trump administration on discrete issues such as North Korea, it is unlikely to budge on security issues, and the notion of a “grand bargain” between the two nations is doubtful, writes J. Berkshire Miller at Al Jazeera.

NORTH KOREA

North Korea fired four ballistic missiles into the Sea of Japan today, prompting South Korea’s acting president to reiterate Seoul’s commitment to deploying a US-built THAAD missile defense shield, Bryan Harris, Kana Inagaki and Demetri Sevastopulo report at the Financial Times.

The acting South Korean president also called on his government to look at “ways to effectively strengthen the Unites States’ extended deterrence” for South Korea, Choe Sang-Hun at the New York Times explaining that this referred to Washington’s ability to deter attacks on its allies with the help of its nuclear forces.

The missiles flew about 1,000 kilometers into ocean off South Korea’s east coast, Seoul reported. [AP]

The use of prohibited VX nerve agent to kill the North Korean leader’s half-brother last month was “totally unacceptable,” Malaysia’s Prime Minister Najib Razak said in an interview aired yesterday, in which he also discussed his country’s desire for security cooperation with Saudi Arabia following the Saudi King’s recent visit, Turki Aldakhil reports at Al Arabiya.

North Korea’s chemical weapons of mass destruction are used by some of the world’s most atrocious regimes, and may target the US, warns Gordon G. Chang at The Daily Beast.

AFGHANISTAN

Attacks on northwestern border checkpoints in Pakistan by dozens of militants based in Afghanistan killed five Pakistani soldiers, Pakistan’s military said today, Jibran Ahmed reporting at Reuters.

Pakistan’s two-week closure of its border with Afghanistan is becoming a humanitarian crisis and a new low in the relationship between the two nations, writes Mujib Mashal at the New York Times.

The Afghan government asked for an extension of the foreign military mission mainly because of the ongoing threat from the Taliban, Afghanistan’s President Ashraf Ghani said today. [AP]

Lawyers in the US filed a petition seeking the release of an Afghan family who were detained in the US shortly after their arrival there last week despite having Special Immigrant Visas granted for work done for the US military that put their lives at risk, the AP reports.

EUROPE

A case between Russia and Ukraine opened today in the International Court of Justice in which Ukraine – represented by Just Security’s own Prof. Harold Koh – is asking the court to rule that Russia is breaching treaties on terrorist financing and racial discrimination, and is likely to take months or years to resolve. Mike Corder reports at the AP.

The EU is to approve the establishment of a headquarters for its military training missions in Somalia, Mali and the Central African Republic, the AP reports.

The notion of an EU nuclear weapons program is gaining traction in European policy circles, a plan that would involve France’s nuclear arsenal being repurposed to protect the whole of Europe and would mark a drastic break with US leadership, explains Max Fisher at the New York Times.

UK security services prevented 13 potential terror attacks since June 2013, the UK’s chief counterterrorism police officer Assistant commissioner Mark Rowley has revealed. [BBC]

If Germany meets the defense increase goals the Trump administration is pushing for, it will be on the fast track to again become Western Europe’s biggest military power, writes Anthony Faiola at the Washington Post.

CYBERSECURITY, PRIVACY and TECHNOLOGY

Former Trump adviser Roger Stone has a “perfectly legal back channel” to WikiLeaks’ founder Julian Assange, he claimed Saturday night. Alan Yuhas reports at the Guardian.

The Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board is down to a single voting member, meaning it has been stripped of almost all its powers to ensure US spy agencies protect privacy and other civil liberties, according to documents obtained by Jenna McLaughlin at The Intercept.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

Three recent public rebukes to case prosecutors by the 9/11 trial judge at Guantánamo Bay war courts over their secret handling of security evidence offer a glimpse of behind-the-scenes activity that could threaten the intended March 2018 trial date, suggests Carol Rosenberg at the Miami Herald.

Al-Qaeda militants killed 11 soldiers in two separate attacks in Yemen yesterday, according to security officials, Ahmed Al-Haj reporting at the AP.

A Palestinian militant was killed in a shootout with Israeli forces in the West Bank this morning, according to Israeli police. [AP]

A member of the Iranian team that negotiated the 2015 nuclear deal with world powers has been indicted by Iran’s judiciary having likely been previously detained on suspicion of espionage, Amir Vahdat and Jon Gambrell report at the AP.

Bahrain’s parliament approved a constitutional change that will allow civilians to be tried in military courts, a move it said was necessary to combat terrorism but which has been criticized by activists as effectively placing the island under an undeclared state of martial law, the AP reports. 

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About the Author(s)

Zoë Chapman

Former Assistant News Editor at Just Security, Legal Researcher at UK-based human rights organization, JUSTICE