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The Early Edition: June 13, 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.

JEFF SESSIONS TESTIFIES

Attorney General Jeff Sessions does not intend to discuss his private conversations with President Trump during his hearing before the Senate Intelligence Committee today, sources close to Sessions told POLITICO’s Tara Palmeri and Josh Gerstein.

Sessions is likely to be grilled on everything from his possible involvement in the firing of former F.B.I. director James Comey to his role in the Russia probe today, Demetri Sevastopulo anticipates at the Financial Times.

Sessions will get his chance to publicly deny that he met with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak during a Donald Trump campaign event in Apr. 2016 in what would amount to an “all in” moment for the attorney general, while a more qualified answer on his response will probably spark a new round of questions, Ken Dilanian writes at NBC News.

The origin of the Kisylak meeting story – which would be the third Sessions-Kisylak encounter if true – can be traced to raw intelligence intercepted by American spy agencies last year that is now held a C.I.A. headquarters in Virginia, which has not been corroborated and can therefore be treated skeptically unless confirmed by multiple sources, Matt Apuzzo and Matthew Rosenberg explain ahead of today’s Senate Intelligence Committee hearing at the New York Times.

Sessions will be pitting his own credibility against Comey’s if he repeats the Justice Department’s version of a conversation between himself and Comey in which Comey has testified that he asked Sessions to make sure he was not left alone with President Trump during his hearing today, a test the attorney general is likely to fail, writes Julian Borger at the Guardian, quoting a piece posted by Just Security’s co-editor Ryan Goodman yesterday.

TRUMP-RUSSIA INVESTIGATION

President Trump meant he would speak to special counsel investigating Trump-Russia collusion Robert Mueller, not necessarily appear before lawmakers, when he said last week that he was willing to discuss his interactions with fired former F.B.I. director James Comey under oath, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer explained yesterday, Jake Lahut reporting at POLITICO.

Prominent Republicans including former Speaker Newt Gingrich attacked Mueller yesterday, asserting that he was out to damage the president, Niall Stanage reports at the Hill.

President Trump is considering firing Mueller, Trump friend Christopher Ruddy, chief executive of Newsmax Media, said yesterday. Michael D. Shear and Maggie Haberman report at the New York Times.

“Don’t waste our time” trying to fire Mueller, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee Rep. Adam Schiff (Calif.) hit back at Republicans yesterday, adding that if they did try to do so “Congress would immediately establish independent counsel and appoint Bob Mueller” via Twitter. Brandon Carter reports at the Hill.

President Trump cannot fire special counsel Robert Mueller, and he probably can’t compel other officials to do so, either. Just Security’s Founding Editor Marty Lederman explains why.

Trump’s schedule is packed with policy-related meetings and events in Washington this month in an effort to draw attention away from the Russia probes, writes the Washington Post’s Abby Phillip.

Russia’s real aim in interfering in last year’s presidential election was to turn Americans against each other and sow distrust between President Trump and the intelligence services, not to collude with Trump to defeat Hillary Clinton as is the assumption of the anti-Trump “resistance,” suggests David Satter writing at the Wall Street Journal.

JAMES COMEY TESTIMONY

The president will announce whether he recorded his conversations with former F.B.I. director James Comey when he is “ready,” White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said yesterday, Jordan Fabian reporting at the Hill.

The U.S. Secret Service has no audio copies or transcripts of any tapes recorded inside the White House, the agency confirmed yesterday in response to a freedom of information request submitted by the Wall Street Journal, Louise Radnofsky reports.

Labeling Comey a leaker and not a whistleblower is not only wrong, it’s dangerous, because it can only discourage other government employees from bringing misconduct into the light of day, Eric Columbus argues at POLITICO MAGAZINE.

GULF-ARAB DISPUTE

The Qatar blockade is a “very complex situation,” U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said yesterday, adding that Qatar’s Emir was moving the country in the “right direction” in its efforts to curtail funding of terrorism. Al Jazeera reports.

The U.S. is “the source of instability in the Middle East” and the creator of the Islamic State and its claim to be fighting the extremist group is “a lie,” Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said in a meeting with high-ranking Iranian officials yesterday, according to his official website. Al Jazeera reports.

Saudi Arabia supports militants inside Iran, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said today, days after two Islamic State-claimed attacks in Tehran. Reuters reports.

Arab countries’ moves to isolate Qatar are equivalent to a “death penalty” for the small Gulf country, Turkey’s president said today, reiterating his country’s support for Qatar, the AP reports.

Kuwait’s Emir has expressed concern that the Qatari blockade will lead to “undesirable consequences,” and Israel has backed the Gulf Cooperation Council (G.C.C.) states in the dispute, Al Jazeera reports in rolling coverage.

Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif expressed hope that the “current impasse in the Gulf will be resolved soon” and reaffirmed Pakistan’s support for Saudi Arabia, the AP reports.

Qatar “urgently need to do more to address support for extremist groups,” U.K. Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said yesterday, also calling on all parties to de-escalate the situation and urging the four Arab nations to ease the blockade on Qatar, Patrick Wintour reports at the Guardian.

“I’m extremely disappointed in President Trump, I thought he was more shrewd,” the C.E.O. of state-owned Qatar Airways Akbar Al Baker said yesterday, calling the air blockade of Qatar an “illegal act.” Nicolas Parasie and Robert Wall report at the Wall Street Journal.

What is at stake for Qatar Airways following the severing of air links with four Arab nations? The C.E.O. of Qatar Airways Akbar Al Baker discusses the implications with Al Jazeera.

Qatar must take action to deal with its extremism problem and must decide whether it is a “responsible nation,” the U.A.E. Ambassador to the U.S. Yousef Al Otaiba writes at the Wall Street Journal.

The Gulf-Arab diplomatic crisis is a result of the collapse of the Qatari crown prince’s strategy to bring the country out from under the shadow of Saudi Arabia and implement an independent foreign policy – actions which have reshaped regional geopolitics, Max Fisher writes at the New York Times.

The blockade may jeopardize the relationship between Qatar and Hamas as Gulf countries put pressure on Qatar to cut relations with the militant group – to whom Qatar has provided financial aid and a safe haven for Hamas leaders, Ian Lee explains at CNN.

AFGHANISTAN

Three civilians were allegedly killed by U.S. soldiers Sunday, according to local officials, the U.S. military responding that it hadn’t officially heard of civilian casualties but confirming that its forces had returned fire after coming under attack, Jessica Donati and Ehsanullah Amiri report at the Wall Street Journal.

The Pentagon’s Afghanistan strategy will include a “regional approach” and will be presented to President Trump “very soon,” Defense Secretary Jim Mattis told the House Armed Services Committee yesterday, Idrees Ali reporting at Reuters.

The KOREAN PENINSULA

North Korea’s progressing missile and nuclear programs present the “most urgent” threat to national security to “all” and its ability to deliver nuclear weapons has “increased in pace and scope,” Secretary of State Jim Mattis said in a written statement to the House Armed Services Committee yesterday, Idrees Ali and Mike Stone reporting at Reuters.

A suspected North Korean drone took photographs of the U.S. T.H.A.A.D. missile defense system in South Korea before it crashed near the border where it was discovered last Friday, Seoul’s Defense Ministry said today, Hyung-Jin Kim reporting at the AP.

The U.S. asked Beijing to take action against almost 10 Chinese companies and individuals to stop their trading with North Korea, indicating that failure to do so may prompt the U.S. Treasury Department to impose unilateral sanctions on some of those entities before the end of the summer, Jay Solomon and Jeremy Page report at the Wall Street Journal, citing a U.S. official.

Multiple ways in which China could cut off North Korea’s trading routes to the outside world and increase its leverage over Pyongyang to ultimately compel it to abandon its nuclear and missile programs are laid out in a new report by Washington-based research group C4ADS, Anna Fifield reports at the Washington Post.

The U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency Director General Yukiya Amano remains “seriously concerned about the nuclear program of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea,” he told the agency’s governing board yesterday, adding that North Korea’s continued unwillingness to comply with U.N. Security Council resolutions was “deeply regrettable.” [UN News Centre]

Former Chicago Bulls basketball star Dennis Rodman arrived in North Korea today and hopes to meet leader Kim Jong-un at a time when the Trump administration has been making overtures toward the Pyongyang regime including attempt to set up a secret back channel to Mr. Kim using “an associate of Trump’s,” Anna Fifield reports at the Washington Post.

Recently-elected South Korean President Moon Jae-in finds himself stuck between two rival powers, the U.S. and China, while facing the threat of “the dictator next door” North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, writes the New York Times editorial board.

President Mood’s “naïvete” in wanting to play a balancing role between regional powers and convince North Korea to negotiate puts South Korea’s security in danger, writes the Wall Street Journal editorial board.

SYRIA

Pro-Syrian government forces may be able to take the southern city of Daraa and advance on the Iraqi border, prompting fears among opposition activists that Iran-backed militias will link up on either side of the Syria-Iraq border, Philip Issa reports at the AP.

The New York-based Human Rights Watch group called on the U.S.-led coalition to prioritize protecting civilians in its battle for Raqqa today, urging the U.S. to investigate airstrikes that have allegedly targeted civilians, the AP reports.

IRAQ

The Islamic State’s chemical weapons production capability has been significantly downgraded following the U.S.-led coalition’s Mosul operation and the targeted killing of chemical weapons experts, though the Islamic State group may still have the capability to produce low quality and low quantity chemical weapons, the AP reports.

US-led airstrikes continue. US and coalition forces carried out 29 airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria on June 11. Separately, partner forces conducted seven strikes against targets in Iraq. [Central Command]

RUSSIA

Russia does not want “a positive relationship” with the U.S. and has chosen instead to be a “strategic competitor” with America, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis told the House Armed Services Committee yesterday, Ellen Mitchell reporting at the Hill.

A package of new economic sanctions against Russia aimed at punishing it for its military activities in the Middle East and Europe and its alleged attempts to interfere with the U.S. presidential election was unveiled late last night by the Senate, Byron Tau reports at the Wall Street Journal.

A bill aimed at forcing the Trump administration to come up with a comprehensive policy to deter Russian aggression will be introduced in the coming weeks by ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), he said in today, Rebecca Kheel reporting at the Hill.

TRUMP ADMINISTRATION FOREIGN POLICY

The E.U.’s foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini is confident the U.S. will uphold the Iran nuclear deal despite its assertions to the contrary, she said today, adding that “in an case the European Union will guarantee that the deal keeps … and that our policy of engagement with Iran continues.” Reuters reports.

Changes to U.S. policy toward Cuba possibly including tightening restrictions on travel and trade will be announced by President Trump Friday, Geoff Bennett and Scott Horsley report at NPR.

CYBERSECURITY, PRIVACY and TECHNOLOGY

America’s arsenal of cyberweapons has met its match with the Islamic State, an enemy that exploits the internet in order to recruit, propagandize and use encrypted communications, write David E. Sanger and Eric Schmitt at the New York Times.

A hearing looking at the WannaCry ransomware attack that hit over 150 countries last month will be held by U.S. lawmakers Thursday, Morgan Chalfant reports at the Hill.

The U.K. and France revealed a new joint campaign to stop the internet from being a safe environment for terrorists ahead of counter-terror talks today, including looking at the possibility of creating a new legal liability for tech companies if they fail to delete content. Danica Kirka reports at the AP.

Governments should be “extraordinarily careful” before forcing technology companies to comply with “exceptional access” to private encrypted communications, the unintended consequences of which could be appalling even if it is understandable why security services desire such powers as they try to combat terrorism, John Thornhill writes at the Financial Times.

The MUSLIM BAN

A three-judge 9th Circuit panel unanimously rejected a Trump administration request to lift an injunction blocking key parts of President Trump’s revised travel ban yesterday, ruling that the president “exceeded the scope of the authority delegated to him by Congress” in an opinion which stated that “immigration, even for the president, is not a one-person show … National security is not a “talismanic incantation” that, once invoked, can support any and all exercise of executive power under” federal immigration law. Josh Gerstein reports at POLITICO.

Lawyers for the state of Hawaii referred to recent tweets by the president decrying the D.O.J.’s watered-down “politically correct” version of the travel ban to support their request that the Supreme Court deny the emergency requests the Trump administration filed on June 1 requesting the court to block the 4th Circuit Hawaii District Court rulings halting the revised ban and review its case yesterday, Lydia Wheeler reports at the Hill.

The TRUMP ADMINISTRATION

The wife of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and respected voice on various humanitarian issues Cindy McCain is expected to be offered role in Donald Trump’s State Department, Lachlan Markay and Asawin Suebsaeng report at The Daily Beast.

Trump began to nominate replacements for U.S. attorneys he fired shortly after becoming president yesterday, sending eight names to the Senate for confirmation, Michael D. Shear reports at the New York Times.

Trump’s pick to head the F.B.I. Christopher Wray was at the center of controversial immigrant detentions in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks when dozens of individuals were taken to maximum security prisons and prohibited from communicating with their families and lawyers, according to a government watchdog report, directing the Bureau of Prisons to keep detainees from having access to lawyers for as long as possible. Betsy Woodruff reports at The Daily Beast.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

“No enemy in the field has done more to harm the combat readiness of our military than sequestration.” Defense Secretary Jim Mattis denounce Congress for not repealing defense spending caps imposed under the 2011 Budget Control Act late last night, the Hill’s Ellen Mitchell reports.

Panama is cutting diplomatic ties with Taiwan in favor or establishing ties with China, Panama’s vice president and China’s foreign minister signing a joint communique in Beijing today establishing diplomatic relations, Eva Dou and Jenny W. Hsu report at the Wall Street Journal.

The bomb attack on a music venue in England’s Manchester last month had been planned since December, Libyan officials told the BBC.

The fight to remove Islamist militants from the Philippine city of Marawi entered its fourth week today, military officials admitting that they were struggling to oust the insurgents from downtown precincts despite relentless bombing. Neil Jerome Morales and Simon Lewis report at Reuters.

The Chinese couple abducted by the Islamic State in Pakistan last month were killed, a senior Pakistani officials aid yesterday without indicating who was responsible for their deaths. Salman Masood reports at the New York Times.

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About the Authors

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

Assistant News Editor at Just Security and Legal Researcher at JUSTICE, a law reform and human rights organization based in the UK