The Early Edition: March 15, 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

The President is “extremely confident” that the Justice Department will come up with evidence to support his claim that his predecessor ordered the wiretapping of Trump Tower during the presidential election, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer informed reporters yesterday, Morgan Chalfant reporting at the Hill.

The FBI will “screw up big time” if they fail to answer a letter requesting that they hand over any potential applications for a warrant to wiretap Trump Tower or related court documents, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) told reporters, NBC News’ Frank Thorp V tweeted yesterday.

The claim that a UK spy agency conducted surveillance on President Trump by Fox News analyst Andrew Napolitano was dismissed by a British security official speaking to Reuters’ Mark Hosenball.

TRUMP ADMINISTRATION FOREIGN POLICY

Jason Greenblatt rounded off his visit to the Middle East yesterday with commitments from both Israel and Palestine to advance “a genuine and lasting peace,” the AP reports.

“This is a good start.” Jason Greenblatt’s visit to sound out Israeli and Palestinian leaders on the prospects for regional peace received generally positive reviews from both sides yesterday, Ruth Eglash reports at the Washington Post.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will meet with shared anxiety over a belligerent North Korea but no agreement about how to deal with it on his first trip to Asia this week, where he hopes to forge cooperation with Japan, South Korea and China against the threat posed by North Korea. Matthew Pennington writes at the AP.

Tillerson’s mission in Asia should be the build support for a plan to contend with the North Korean threat, which should involve a negotiated settlement that first halts and then rolls back the elusive country’s nuclear program, according to former deputy secretary of state Antony J. Blinken writing at the New York Times.

Increased financial penalties on Chinese companies who support North Korea’s weapons programs are being considered by the Trump administration, Jay Solomon reports at the Wall Street Journal.

President Trump’s meeting with Saudi Arabia’s deputy crown prince yesterday signals the Kingdom’s aim of resetting ties with Washington, writes Margherita Stancati at the Wall Street Journal.

A “thorny” list of issues stand between US-China relations ahead of President Xi Jinping’s visit to Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort, Chinese officials reportedly pushing for the meeting to take place at that location because it would be more relaxed and informal than the White House. Mark Landler writes at the New York Times.

A personnel decision by National Security Adviser Lt. Gen. H. R. McMaster to oust a key intelligence operative was overturned by the President at the behest of Steve Bannon and Jared Kushner, Kenneth P. Vogel and Eliana Johnson report at POLITICO.

Any victory under Trump’s strategy to defeat the Islamic State will be fleeting, warn Frederick Kagan and Kimberly Kagan at the Wall Street Journal.

The Trump administration’s rationale for mulling exiting the UN Human Rights Council is revealed in a letter from Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to nine non-profit organizations obtained by Foreign Policy’s Colum Lynch and John Hudson.

If President Trump pulls out of the UN Human Rights Council it will give Russia, China and Iran a free pass to rewrite the global rules on human rights, suggests Suzanne Nossel at Foreign Policy.

The Trump administration has so far been largely silent about Turkey’s downward spiral, observes the Washington Post editorial board.

“Give Rex Tillerson a chance.” Will Inboden at Foreign Policy decries the spate of articles denouncing the fledgling Secretary of State’s efforts so far, arguing it’s too soon to make a judgement.

The Trump administration’s worrying emerging weapon against its political adversaries is budget cuts, those aimed at the State Department, UN peacekeeping and others saving small sums of money but only by cutting out insurance programs that would be very useful during a foreign policy emergency. Daniel W. Drezner writes at the Washington Post.

The TRUMP CABINET’S RELATIONSHIP WITH RUSSIA

FBI Director James Comey has said privately that his agency may provide a “clearer explanation” of any investigation by his agency of Russian meddling in the election today, according to Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), Seung Min Kim reporting at POLITICO.

Sen. Lindsey Graham’s Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime and Terrorism will seize the spotlight today during a public hearing on Russia’s alleged interference in the 2016 election, and while the subcommittee lacks the resources and access that the House and Senate Intelligence Committees enjoy, its Republican chair is a fierce critic of Donald Trump who has no issues with bucking party leaders to get to the heart of the matter, write Austin Wright and Seung Min Kim at POLITICO.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley will hold up the confirmation vote for deputy attorney general nominee Rod J. Rosenstein until FBI Director James Comey briefs his panel about investigations into alleged collusion between the Trump administration and Russia, he said yesterday, Karoun Demirjian reporting at the Washington Post.

Legislation designed to support the Department of Justice’s ability to investigate Kremlin-backed news agency RT America, which she believes is “coordinating with the Russian government to spread misinformation and undermine our democratic process,” was introduced by Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) yesterday, the Hill’s Jordain Carney reports.

We are not yet at the point where an independent investigation of President Trump and his campaign’s relationship with Russia is necessary, the US’ constitutional system being more than sufficient for the time being, writes Jack Goldsmith at the New York Times.

The MUSLIM BAN

A hearing will take place today in which the Seattle judge who issued the broadest block on the initial travel ban will consider blocking the revised order before it takes effect at midnight tonight, Josh Gerstein reports at POLITICO.

Top Trump adviser Stephen Miller’s disclosure to Fox News last month that the revised travel ban isn’t much different from the old one may make it easier to sue the order, Betsy Woodruff suggests at The Daily Beast.

SYRIA

Conflicting information on whether rebel groups will attend talks with the Syrian government in Kazakhstan was offered by rebel representatives and Kazakh officials, the AP reports.

At least nine people were killed in air strikes on Syria’s rebel-held Idlib province today, Reuters reports.

Syrian airstrikes – not rebels – severed water supplies to 5.5 million people in Damascus, the UN concluded yesterday, Nick Cumming-Bruce reporting at the New York Times.

The “weaponization” of healthcare in Syria has profound and dangerous implications for medical neutrality in conflict zones, according to a report for the Lancet Commission on Syria, Sarah Boseley reports at the Guardian.

IRAQ

Iraqi forces set their sights on reaching the Grand Mosque in Mosul’s Old City today, Iraq’s prime minister saying the battle for the city was reaching its final stages. Patrick Markey and John Davison report at Reuters.

Iraqi government-vetted tribal forces fighting the Islamic State receive training on the Law of Armed Conflict from lawyers attached to the coalition’s special operation forces, explains US Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class John Fischer at Central Command.

US-led airstrikes continue. US and coalition forces carried out 12 airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria on Mar. 13. Separately, partner forces conducted eight strikes against targets in Iraq. [Central Command]

NORTH KOREA

New talks on reducing tensions in the Korean Peninsula were called for by Chinese Premier Li Keqiang today, the AP reports.

US, Japanese and South Korean warships began two days of drills aimed at improving response to ballistic missiles yesterday, Emily Tamkin reports at Foreign Policy.

No one has any idea how to handle North Korean leader Kim Jong-un or contain his escalating belligerence, writes Roula Khalaf at the Financial Times.

EUROPE and TURKEY

Turkey’s President Erdoğan held Holland responsible for the Srebrenica massacre, the worst genocide in Europe since WWII, yesterday, as the row over Turkish ministers addressing pro-Erdoğan rallies in the Netherlands continued, Jon Henley reports at the Guardian.

Turkey is “completely detached from reality,” European Council President Donald Tusk said today. [BBC]

CYBERSECURITY, PRIVACY and TECHNOLOGY

WikiLeaks is in contact with a variety of tech companies about security vulnerabilities revealed in CIA documents the site has yet to release, it said yesterday, Joe Uchill reporting at the Hill.

The government’s recording of former national security adviser Michael Flynn’s phone call with the Russian ambassador to the US seems about to become a flashpoint in the fight over reauthorization of a controversial provision in the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act that allows the warrantless collection of Americans’ personal data, Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) arguing in a letter to House Intelligence Committee chair Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) that changes are required. Katie Bo Williams reports at the Hill.

A new agreement over the New York Police Department’s surveillance of Muslim citizens by Judge Haight of Federal District Court in Manhattan strengthens oversight in a way that will serve as a check on illegal tactics while giving the department the freedom it needs to pursue legitimate counterterrorism investigations, concludes the New York Times editorial board.

A decision on whether to continue with the preliminary investigation of WikiLeaks’ founder Julian Assange over alleged rape will be made after Swedish prosecutors have obtained a full translation of an interview conducted last year, they said today, Reuters reporting.

The “real shocker” in the WikiLeaks’ leak of CIA documents is, once again, that the government can’t keep secrets, writes David Ignatius at the Washington Post.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

Russia has promised military assistance to the parliament based in Libya’s east, the speaker of the parliament said today. [AP]

Legislation to reopen the special immigration program for Afghans who aided US forces will be introduced by leaders of the Senate Armed Services Committee today, POLITICO’s Gregory Hellman reports.

A decision not to toss out the case of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl over comments made by President Trump during the election was upheld by a three-judge panel in an Army appeals court, Rebecca Kheel reports at the Hill.

A Jordanian woman imprisoned in Israel for her role in a 2001 suicide attack on a Jerusalem restaurant is facing fresh charges in the US, Aruna Viswanatha reports at the Wall Street Journal.

Evidence is mounting that UK-based Russian defector Alexander Perepilichny was poisoned, the Wall Street Journal editorial board drawing parallels with the 2006 poisoning with polonium of Alexander Litvinkenko. 

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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