The Early Edition: March 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.

TRUMP’s WIRETAP CLAIMS

FBI Director James Comey’s testimony before the House Intelligence Committee today will shed light on Trump’s wiretap claims and put to rest allegations of collusion between the Trump administration and Russia, lawmakers hope, Janet Hook and Shane Harris reporting at the Wall Street Journal.

Comey and NSA head Adm. Michael Rogers’ testimonies today are likely to put pressure on a fragile truce between the panel’s top Republican Rep. Devin Nunes (Calif.) and its top Democrat Rep. Adam Schiff (Calif.), suggests the Hill’s Katie Bo Williams.

New documents provided to Congress by the Justice Department provide no proof that President Trump was wiretapped by his predecessor, the Republican chairman and ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee said yesterday, Mike DeBonis reporting at the Washington Post.

Media revelations about former national security adviser Michael Flynn raise concerns that the Trump administration might have been spied on during the presidential campaign, even while there “never was” evidence that Trump himself was wiretapped, Rep. Devin Nunes said yesterday. Ian Kullgren reports at POLITICO.

White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer’s claim that UK intelligence agency GCHQ tapped Trump’s phones on Barack Obama’s behalf is absurd – and “gratuitously damaging,” writes former British ambassador to Washington Peter Westmacott at the Guardian.

Fox News made him a source unknowingly and “didn’t get it right, [or] accurate either,” former CIA analyst Larry Johnson whose information was used to back the claim that the UK spied on President Trump said yesterday, Olivia Beavers reports at the Hill.

Johnson is a longtime critic of the US and supporter of Russia, Matthew Nussbaum writes at POLITICO.

A debate over whether security agencies invade US citizens’ privacy and could undermine democracy has been renewed by Trump’s wiretap claim, observes Scott Shane at the New York Times.

The TRUMP CABINET’S RELATIONSHIP WITH RUSSIA

There is no evidence of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia, House Intelligence Chairman Devin Nunes said yesterday, Rebecca Savranksy reporting at the Hill.

A “tangle” of inquiries with competing agendas and timetables have been prompted by Russia’s campaign to disrupt the presidential election, with little agreement on the most important things that should be investigated, observe Matt Apuzzo, Adam Goldman and Matthew Rosenberg at the New York Times.

TRUMP ADMINISTRATION FOREIGN POLICY

President Trump will meet with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in Washington on April 3, a White House official confirmed yesterday, after Trump underscored his commitment to bilateral ties with Egypt and cooperation in the fight against terrorism during a Jan. 23 phone call. [Al Jazeera]

Germany owes NATO and the US “vast sums of money,” President Trump tweeted a day after meeting with Chancellor Angela Merkel in Washington Friday, a meeting the President insisted was productive despite reports of tensions between the two leaders. Carol E. Lee reports at the Wall Street Journal.

NATO “does not have a debt account,” German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen said in response to Trump’s “inaccurate” tweets, Rick Noack reports at the Washington Post.

Trump is misunderstanding how NATO’s joint defense is paid for, explains Allison Graves at The Daily Beast.

The Trump administration is relying on Special Operations forces to deliver its promised intensified fight against the Islamic State and other terrorist groups, a soon-to-be-approved Pentagon proposal to remove constraints on Special Operations airstrikes and raids in parts of Somalia one of the few signs that the Trump administration wants to depart from Mr. Obama’s strategy to minimize the US military’s footprint overseas, Eric Schmitt writes at the New York Times.

A US diplomat was expelled from New Zealand sporting a broken nose and a black eye after the US embassy refused to waive his immunity during a police investigation, the BBC reports.

“Escalate to de-escalate.” This is the phrase that sums up President Trump’s foreign policy doctrine, writes Josh Rogin at the Washington Post.

While defenders of USAID are right to say that foreign aid is vital to advancing US interests, there’s also plenty of waste, writes Mark Moyar at the Wall Street Journal.

Trump’s threats to make Mexico pay for a border wall and increase deportation are eroding the incentives for Mexico to continue to cooperate with the US on security issues, warns Joshua Partlow at the Washington Post.

The MUSLIM BAN

A Hawaii federal judge refused a Justice Department request to narrow his injunction temporarily halting President Trump’s revised travel ban yesterday, Josh Gerstein reports at POLITICO.

The TRUMP ADMINISTRATION

Supreme Court justice nominee Neil Gorsuch will face questions from Democrats on issues such as President Trump’s revised travel ban as they attempt to derail him during his confirmation hearings starting today, David J. Lynch examining the “key players” who will determine the outcome at the Financial Times.

Federal judges should visit Guantánamo Bay to become “more sympathetic” to the Bush administration’s defense of its detainee polices, Gorsuch once recommended, Seung Min Kim at POLITICO highlighting that this sheds light on his involvement with the national security policies of the Bush administration, a major focal point for Democrats on the Judiciary Committee.

Gorsuch’s hearing will provide him with an opportunity to reaffirm some key principles about the rule of law following recent attacks by President Trump on the judges who have thwarted his administration’s attempts to impose a travel ban, suggests Alicia Bannon at The Daily Beast.

The White House’s new senior director for Europe and Russia Fiona Hill,author of Mr Putin: Operative in the Kremlin,  is “the most influential Putinologist on a National Security Council that badly needs them,” writes Michael Weiss at The Daily Beast.

A former Marine officer who’s supposed to keep an eye on Defense Secretary Jim Mattis is known as “the commissar” and is one of a coterie of senior aides installed by the White House to monitor secretaries’ loyalty, according to officials in and outside the administration, Lisa Rein and Juliet Eilperin write at the Washington Post.

REX TILLERSON in ASIA

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson received a warm welcome in Beijing yesterday, despite his boss’ goading of China over Twitter, but some critics say Tillerson has bent too far and handed Beijing a “diplomatic victory,” particularly in his adoption of the phrase “mutual respect” long advocated by China but resisted by the US. Simon Denyer analyses the last day of Tillerson’s Asia trip at the Washington Post.

Taiwan must protect its own interests, its government said today as concerns that it will be used as a pawn by China and the US rise ahead of meeting of US and Chinese leaders hinted at by Tillerson yesterday, Reuters’ J. R. Wu and Jess Macy Yu report.

Trump places a “very high value” on communications with Chinese President Xi Jinping, Tillerson said, Christopher Bodeen reporting at the AP.

NORTH KOREA

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un acted “very, very badly” and China has “done little to help!” President Trump tweeted yesterday following Kim’s claim that North Korea tested a new high-thrust rocket engine over the weekend, the Hill’s Olivia Beavers reports.

The White House, State Department and Pentagon had no official response to reports of North Korea’s latest test, Carol E. Lee, Jeremy Page and Gordon Lubold report at the Wall Street Journal.

North Korea’s latest test showed “meaningful” progress, South Korea said today, Ju-min Park reporting at Reuters.

The Trump administration seems intent on raising the stakes in a power contest nobody can win, observes Simon Tisdall at the Guardian.

How concerned should we actually be about the threat of nuclear war with North Korea, now “alarming” after 25 years of background noise, Philip Bump asks at the Washington Post.

SYRIA

Intense fighting between Syrian and rebel forces took place in Syria’s capital Damascus today, a source saying that the government had recaptured all the positions it lost when rebels advanced yesterday. [Reuters]

The rebels infiltrated government-held parts of the city via tunnels overnight, a surprising breach of the security perimeter in Damascus where Assad’s forces have effectively walled themselves off from opposition forces camped in two enclaves in the eastern part of the city. [AP]

The Israeli ambassador to Moscow was summoned by Russia’s foreign ministry to explain an exchange of fire last week between Israeli jets and Syrian troops, the AP reports.

Chlorine gas has is being used in Syria to cause panic and incite people to flee, Al Jazeera’s Dorian Geiger examining the impact of the most heavily-used chemical weapon in the Syrian war.

The “business partner of Isis and financier of terrorism.” Ralph Atkins, Erika Solomon and Michael Stothard at the Financial Times examine the case of LafargeHolcim, the Swiss-listed cement company facing allegations of associating with terrorist organizations in Syria.

ISRAEL and PALESTINE

The highest Palestinian honor was awarded to the senior UN official who resigned Friday amid pressure to withdraw a report accusing Israel of apartheid, Al Jazeera reports.

The report’s use of international law and the “seemingly moribund” International Covenant on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid to create a new matrix of analysis of the occupation will prove extremely hard for Israel’s defenders to refute in the coming years, Mark LeVine writes at Al Jazeera.

How did the Democrats turn from being the pro-Israel party to being anti-Israel? Andrew Stein and Douglas Schoen explain at the Wall Street Journal.

AFGHANISTAN

Three US soldiers were wounded when an Afghan soldier opened fire inside a base in the Helmand province yesterday before being shot dead, the Guardian reports.

So-called “green on blue” insider attacks by Afghan soldiers on international service members were a major problem years back but now occur less frequently, Al Jazeera explains.

The reopening of the Pakistan-Afghanistan border was ordered by Pakistan’s prime minister today, who called it a “goodwill gesture,” Riaz Khan reports at the AP.

EUROPE

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will visit Russia for a summit with President Putin in late April, Japan’s foreign minister confirmed today. Abe has sworn to resolve a decades-old territorial dispute with Russia over a string of western Pacific islands, a feud that has precluded a formal peace treaty between Japan and Russia following WWII, Reuters reports.

Britain and Germany will sign a new defence cooperation deal after the UK launches Brexit, Stefan Wagstyl reports at the Financial Times.

A man who was fatally shot at Orly Airport in France Saturday after trying to steal a soldier’s gun was previously known to French anti-terror authorities, James McAuley reports at the Washington Post.

Russia and China are increasingly challenging the military superiority the US has held since the end of the Cold War, writes Nikita Vladimirov at the Hill.

GUANTANAMO BAY

The Supreme Court is being asked to intervene in the military tribunal at Guantánamo Bay by lawyers representing USS Cole bombing case defendant Abd al Rahim al Nashiri, Carol Rosenberg reports at the Miami Herald.

Nashiri continues to experience the psychological consequences of being tortured by CIA interrogators, according to newly declassified documents, Charlie Savage reports at the New York Times.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

Vulnerabilities of the Defense Department’s supply chain risks adversaries inserting malicious material into Pentagon weapons systems, Lawmakers fear. Morgan Chalfant reports at the Hill.

China welcomed Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu today days after a visit by Saudi King Salman as Beijing continues to step up its engagement with the Middle East, Michael Martina reports at Reuters. 

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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