The Early Edition: May 16, 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 DISCLOSES CLASSIFIED INFORMATION TO RUSSIA

The President disclosed highly classified information to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and the Russian ambassador during a White House meeting last week endangering an important source of intelligence on the Islamic State, former and current U.S. officials confirmed, Greg Miller and Greg Jaffe reporting at the Washington Post.

The intelligence Trump boasted about to the Russians concerned an Islamic State plot and included details of the plot’s intention to use laptops to attack aeroplanes and the city in which it had been uncovered, officials said, the information – so sensitive that U.S. officials did not share it widely with the government or pass it on to other allies – provided by a Middle Eastern ally. Matthew Rosenberg and Eric Schmitt report at the New York Times.

The story is “false,” national security adviser H.R. McMaster told reporters last night, insisting that “at no time” during Trump’s meeting with the Russians was anything discussed other than military operations that were already publicly known. The Hill’s Katie Bo Williams and Jordan Fabian report.

McMaster didn’t actually deny reports that the President leaked classified information, his statement that “at no time were intelligence sources or methods discussed” a suggestion that the original story from the Washington Post had reported something that it hadn’t in order to deny something – military operations aren’t even mentioned in the story, points out Aaron Blake at the Washington Post.

State Department officials were unaware of a White House statement attributed to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson defending the President’s handling of highly classified information, Michelle Kosinksi and Nicole Gaouette report at CNN.

White House staff were literally “hiding in offices” as reporters descended after the story broke last night, a senior Trump aide told The Daily Beast’s Lachlan Markay, Tim Mak, Asawin Suebsaeng and Jana Winter.

The efficacy of the intelligence community is threatened by Trump’s “messy” handling of classified information, ultimately at the expense of national security, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said yesterday, Mike Lillis reporting at the Hill.

“What do the Russians have on Donald Trump?” Pelosi speculated that the Russian government is holding something over the President’s head to make him accede to their needs, the Hill’s Olivia Beavers reports.

If confirmed Trump’s disclosures to the Russians could weak their “deepest and most enduring damage” on intelligence-sharing by U.S. allies, write Julian Borger and Sabrina Siddiqui at the Guardian.

President Trump has sold out America’s allies to benefit an enemy, realizing the fears of U.S. intelligence officials that allies would stop sharing intelligence in  case it might be passed on the Russia, Clint Watts writes at The Daily Beast.

This is not a legal issue – it is the president’s prerogative whether he shares information and with whom – but a matter of competence and national security, Bryan Bender explains at POLITICO.

House and Senate committee members will have to decide if it’s necessary to speed up their investigation into Trump-Russia collusion as a result of this unfolding story, which will certainly add another layer of intrigue to the matter of former F.B.I. director James Comey’s firing last week, suggests Jennifer Rubin at the Washington Post.

Trump the infantalist. Immaturity is becoming the leitmotif of Trump’s presidency, and his leaks to the Russian officials was a result of his sloppiness, his lack of impulse control, and above all the fact that he is “a 7-year-old boy desperate for the approval of those he admires,” writes David Brooks at the New York Times.

While news that Trump revealed secret information with the Russians has left intelligence officials astounded, the President has a track record of questioning, worrying and even directly upsetting intelligence officials, as Amber Phillips explains at the Washington Post.

JAMES COMEY

Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein will brief the entire Senate on President Trump’s decision to fire former F.B.I. director James Comey on Thursday, the Hill’s John Bowden reports.

Picking a current G.O.P. lawmaker to replace Comey could send the wrong signal about the future of the F.B.I., G.O.P. Senators are warning the Trump administration, which could announce its pick as soon as this week after eight contenders including Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) were interviewed over the weekend. The Hill’s Jordain Carney reports.

Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) is “not the right person” to replace Comey, he said yesterday, despite Rosenstein speaking to him about running the agency. The Hill’s Mark Hensch reports.

Trump is employing a “risky” approach to appointing a new F.B.I. director that has never before been tried, writes David Lynch at the Financial Times.

White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer refused to say whether recordings of conversations between President Trump and White House visitors including fired F.B.I. director Comey exist yesterday, or whether Trump would comply with calls from Congress to produce the recordings. Jordan Fabian reports at the Hill.

Trump fired Comey knowing that it “could be detrimental to himself” and did it for the good of the nation, Spicer said yesterday, Nolan D. McCaskill reporting at POLITICO.

A Freedom of Information Act request demanding records about Trump’s firing of Comey was filed by the American Civil Liberties Union yesterday, Mark Hensch reports at the Hill.

The new F.B.I director must be “universally recognized as credible and above partisanship” following Trump’s admission that he was motivated by the Trump-Russia investigation in firing Comey and ensuing debates as to whether the President obstructed justice in doing so, writes the Washington Post editorial board.

SYRIA

Washington accused the Syrian government of running a crematorium to cover up “mass murders” at the infamous Saydnaya prison outside Damascus yesterday, Felicia Schwartz reports at the Wall Street Journal.

The Syrian government denied the accusation today, a Syrian foreign ministry statement dismissing it as “a new Hollywood story detached from reality,” Reuters reports.

The allegation is based on newly declassified satellite imagery of the prison and represents a significant expansion of the accusations America has made against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Gardiner Harris, Anne Barnard and Rick Gladstone report at the New York Times.

The U.S. intends to supply anti-tank weapons to Syrian Kurdish forces fighting the Islamic State, Dion Nissenbaum speculating as to the potential side-effects at the Wall Street Journal.

The U.N. envoy to Syria defended the peace process and denied that it provided a smokescreen for attacks on rebels to the Assad regime after President Assad dismissed it as irrelevant, Patrick Wintour reports at the Guardian.

Two car bombs detonated in Syria’s Rukban refugee camp near the border with Jordan killed at least six people yesterday, according to a rebel official and a camp resident. Al Jazeera reports.

The Russia-brokered plan to introduce “de-escalation zones” in Syria risks setting off an international struggle for influence in the country that could pitch U.S. and Iranian-backed proxies into fighting that has little to do with the Syrian conflict itself and more to do with each sides’ strategic interests, writes Erika Solomon at the Financial Times.

The KOREAN PENINSULA

Russia cautioned against “intimidating” North Korea yesterday, comments Amanda Erickson at the Washington Post suggests were almost certainly directed at Washington.

The U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres condemned North Korea’s latest missile launch yesterday, saying it violated Security Council resolution and calling on the Pyongyang regime to “ensure full compliance with its international obligations.” [UN News Centre]

South Korea’s new President Moon Jae-in will visit the White House next month amid concerns over North Korea, the AP reports.

Sunday’s missile test suggests that North Korean leader Kim Jong-un plans to improve his ability to strike the U.S. without triggering an American military response, stepping up the testing of missiles that fly into space and then re-enter the atmosphere a few hundred miles or so off North Korea’s coast instead of going for distance, William J. Broad and David E. Sanger write at the New York Times.

IRAQ

The special presidential envoy for the global coalition against the Islamic State Brett McGurk praised territorial gains against the militants in Iraq during a visit to the south of Mosul yesterday, but local officials said that more aid is required to rebuild once the extremists have gone. Susannah George reports at the AP.

US-led airstrikes continue. US and coalition forces carried out 17 airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria on May 15. Separately, partner forces conducted six strikes against targets in Iraq. [Central Command]

ISRAEL AND PALESTINE

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu repeated calls for the U.S. to move its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem yesterday, a day after Secretary of State Rex Tillerson hinted that the Trump administration might reconsider the promise to do so if it gets in the way of an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal. Rory Jones reports at the Wall Street Journal.

“Not your territory.” Israel angrily demanded an explanation for a U.S. representative’s questioning of Israel’s claim to the Western Wall in Jerusalem’s Old City, one of the holiest sites in Jerusalem, yesterday, Josef Federman reports at the AP.

Arab Gulf states offered to take concrete steps to establish better relations with Israel if Netanyahu will offer a significant overture aimed at restarting the Middle East peace process, people briefed on the discussion told Jay Solomon, Gordon Lubold and Rory Jones at the Wall Street Journal.

It is arrogant of the President to treat a Middle East peace deal like a real estate deal, Colbert I. King writes ahead of Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia at the end of the week followed by a trip to Israel at the Washington Post.

TURKEY

Dozens of staff in the energy and education ministries were detained in Turkey yesterday as part of operations targeting the network of alleged coup mastermind U.S.-based cleric Fethullah Gulen, according to Turkish state media. Daren Butler reports at Reuters.

President Trump’s meeting with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan today must be used as an opportunity to help Turkey to return to a democratic path, Fethullah Gulen writes at the Washington Post.

The U.S. will not be the only partner in Erdoğan’s mind during his meeting with Trump today, as signs grow that Turkey is forging closer links with China, writes Adam Taylor at the Washington Post.

The MUSLIM BAN

It was unclear whether the 9th Circuit judges considering President Trump’s revised travel ban yesterday were leaning toward reviving the order, though the panel did express scepticism about some arguments against the ban, Josh Gerstein reports at POLITICO.

Judges asked probing questions of both sides yesterday, Adam Liptak taking a detailed look at the arguments tabled at the New York Times.

GLOBAL RANSOMWARE ATTACK

There are indications that North Korea was involved in the global WannaCry attack last Friday, security researchers said yesterday, Ellen Nakashima, Craig Timberg and Paul Schemm reporting at the Washington Post.

Russian President Vladimir Putin accused the U.S. of developing the hacking tools used in the attack, which affected Russian law enforcement agencies, yesterday, Andrew Roth reports at the Washington Post.

A classified cyber weapon stolen from U.S. spies has been repurposed and made available on the “dark web” following the success of the WannaCry attack, Sam Jones and Max Seddon writes at the Financial Times.

The N.S.A. followed protocol in the case of the WannaCry ransomware attack – which took advantage of a software flaw in Microsoft Window’s operating system that the N.S.A. identified last August – but it wasn’t enough, the episode renewing the debate about the obligations of defense departments to the private sector, writes the Wall Street Journal editorial board.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

A lawsuit brought by defendant Walid Bin Attash will not derail progress in the 9/11 dealth-penalty trials at Guantánamo Bay navy base, the military judge ruled yesterday on an issue that threatened to halt this week’s pretrial hearing. Carol Rosenberg reports at the Miami Herald.

The U.S. Navy needs to expand its fleet and maritime capability if it is to remain competitive as China, Russia and other nations seek to increase their own naval power, the Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson said today, Himani Sarkar reporting at Reuters.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte and his Chinese counterpart promised to strengthen their friendship and “mutually beneficial partnership” during a meeting in Beijing today, Duterte adding that both he and Xi were anticipating inaugural bilateral talks on the South China Sea later this week. The AP reports.

Afghan security forces retook a district center close to the city of Kunduz that was under Taliban control since earlier this month, officials said today. Reuters reports.

A U.K. High Court judge will consider whether a legal ban on prosecuting former prime minister Tony Blair over the 2003 Iraq war can be challenged after a private criminal prosecution was blocked last year when it was ruled that Blair had immunity from any criminal charges, Vikram Dodd reports at the Guardian. 

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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