The Early Edition: June 22, 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.

POSSIBLE U.S. COMPLICITY in TORTURE in YEMEN

American forces have been involved in interrogations of detainees in Yemen, where hundreds of people have disappeared into a secret network of prisons where abuse and torture are routine, senior U.S. defense officials acknowledged yesterday, denying any participation in or knowledge of human rights abuses, Maggie Michael reports at the AP.

While American defense officials say U.S. interrogators were not involved in any abuses of Yemeni detainees, legal experts explain that obtaining intelligence that may have been extracted through torture albeit inflicted by another party could would constitute complicity in torture in contravention of the International Convention Against Torture, Maggie Michael and Maad Al-Zikry explain at the AP.

Do any of the allegations in the AP’s story suggests a violation by U.S. forces of domestic and/or international law? Would the detainees have any remedy under U.S. law? What options would the U.S. government have if it seeks to assert jurisdiction over any of the detainees? Just Security’s Steve Vladeck provides an examination of these three questions by way of a starting point for analysis of the wealth of legal, policy and political implications of the AP’s claims.

TRUMP-RUSSIA INVESTIGATION

Russian government hackers targeted the voting systems in nearly two dozen states last year “for the purpose of influencing [the U.S.] election,” current and former officials testified yesterday, including former Department of Homeland Security secretary Jeh Johnson, who told the House Intelligence Committee that the hackers could be traced back specifically to Russian President Vladimir Putin, Byron Tau and Erica Orden report at the Wall Street Journal.

There was no delay in informing Americans of Russian interference in last year’s presidential election by the previous administration, Johnson said yesterday, arguing that his response to the Russians’ interference was one of careful characterization intended to ensure that the Obama administration was not seen as taking sides in a political fight, the Hill’s Katie Bo William reports.

Cyberattacks aimed at undermining U.S. elections will “get worse before they get better” and officials should “assume” that “the Russians will be back, and possibly other state actors, and possibly other bad cyber actors,” Johnson warned yesterday, Andrew Rafferty reporting at NBC News.

The Senate Judiciary Committee will likely investigate whether President Trump obstructed justice by firing former F.B.I. director James Comey, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) told CNN’s Manu Raju yesterday, John Bowden reporting at the Hill.

Obstruction of justice would be one of the areas his committee would pursue, Judiciary Committee member Grassley also hinted in an earlier interview with POLITICO’s Seung Min Kim and Josh Gerstein.

The Senate Judiciary Committee will move forward with its own probe of possible Trump-Russia collusion, Sens. Grassley, Diannie Feinstein (D-Calif.), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) confirmed in a joint statement following their meeting with special counsel Robert Mueller yesterday, Jordain Carney reporting at the Hill.

Subpoenas may be the next step if the White House fails to comply with a deadline tomorrow to provide information on any tapes of meetings between President Trump and former F.B.I. director James Comey, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee said yesterday, Austin Wright reporting at POLITICO.

The F.B.I. is providing a substantial number of personnel to support special prosecutor Robert Mueller in his investigation into Russian interference, the acting head of the agency Andrew McCabe told a House appropriations subcommittee yesterday, Josh Gerstein reporting at POLITICO.

House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) has had no involvement in the committee’s investigation into Russian interference since his recusal, the new leader of the probe Rep. Mike Conway (R-Texas) said yesterday, Katie Bo Williams reporting at the Hill.

Why does White House adviser Jared Kusher still have security clearance despite reports indicating that he failed to disclose meetings with Russian officials and businesspeople? the top Democrat on the House Oversight Committee Rep. Elijah Cummings asked White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus in a letter also signed by all the other Democrats on the committee yesterday, Austin Wright reports at POLITICO.

The KOREAN PENINSULA

The latest version of a Beijing proposal for the U.S. to open negotiations on a temporary freeze on North Korea’s nuclear and missile tests in exchange for reducing the American military presence in the Korean Peninsula was put to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis in talks with China’s foreign minister and one of its top military officials yesterday, Tillerson telling reporters after the meeting that China has “a diplomatic responsibility to exert much greater economic and diplomatic pressure” on the Pyongyang regime. David E. Sanger and Gardiner Harris report at the New York Times.

The U.S. and China agreed to expand military-to-military ties and Tillerson said that President Trump would visit China this year during the meeting yesterday, signaling the Trump administration’s determination to continue to improve relations with Beijing, with other issues discussed at the meeting including China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea. David Brunnstrom and Matt Spetalnick report at Reuters.

China should do more to rein in North Korea’s nuclear program, South Korean President Moon Jae-in said today, adding that he would call on the Chinese premier to lift measures against South Korean companies imposed in response to South Korea’s decision to host a U.S.-built T.H.A.A.D. anti-missile system. Jean Yoon and Soyoung Kim report at Reuters.

The next step for the Trump administration on North Korea should be to sanction Chinese financiers and traders who support leader Kim Jong-un, suggests the Wall Street Journal editorial board.

Demand a full explanation of what happened to 22-year-old student Otto Warmbier from North Korea and do not move on until it is given, meanwhile impose a ban on Americans traveling to North Korea and make the release of other Americans imprisoned by the Pyongyang regime a priority, is former U.S. assistant secretary of state for East Asia Pacific Christopher R. Hill’s advice to the Trump administration, writing at the New York Times.

GULF-ARAB DISPUTE

Saudi Arabia and other countries involved in the ongoing dispute with Qatar have drawn up a list of demands for Qatar, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said yesterday, urging that talks to resolve the crisis move ahead, Felicia Schwartz reports at the Wall Street Journal.

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Saudi Arabian leaders agreed to increase efforts to end tensions with Qatar in a phone call last night, according to Turkish government sources, Al Jazeera reports.

What’s actually going on? Adam Schreck at the AP provides an analysis of the ongoing Gulf crisis in which decades-old regional troubles are boiling to a crisis point unseen since the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990.

SAUDI ARABIA

Prince Mohammad bin Salman was President Trump’s “anointed candidate” in the struggle to control the House of Saud, the president wasting no time in calling to congratulate the new crown prince on his ascension yesterday, whom he views as a crucial ally in his efforts to establish a Sunni Muslim alliance in the Persian Gulf, write Mark Landler and Mark Mazzetti at the New York Times.

The appointment of Mohammad bin Salman is intended to present a unified front to Saudi Arabia’s enemies, particularly Iran, and to reinforce U.S. support for a more assertive Riyadh, Karen Elliott House writes at the Wall Street Journal.

ISRAEL and PALESTINE

Senior Trump adviser Jared Kushner and Trump’s Middle East envoy Jason Greenblatt met with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu yesterday, discussing “priorities for the Palestinians and potential next steps” in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with Abbas, according to a statement from Abbas’ spokesperson as the two U.S. officials embarked on the latest attempt to restart negotiations toward peace frozen since U.S.-led talks collapsed in 2014, Al Jazeera reports.

Kushner’s meeting with Netanyahu was “productive,” the White House said afterward, the AP reporting.

Kushner returned to the U.S. last night after a “lightning” visit to Jerusalem and Ramallah, while Greenblatt remained in the region to continue talks, Barak Ravid, Amir Tibon and Almog Ben Zikri report at HAARETZ.

Kushner and Greenblatt will brief the president, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and national security adviser H.R. McMaster and talk “next steps” on their return to Washington, the White House said, Rebecca Ballhaus reporting at the Wall Street Journal.

No time is the right time for Israeli-Palestinian peace neotiations, but the present is an especially challenging moment to give it a go: the Palestinian leadership is weak and broken, and Israel’s government is among the most right-wing in its history, yet skeptics in the region are hedging their bets largely because Trump is so “out-of-the-ordinary,” William Booth writes at the Washington Post.

RUSSIA

The White House is lobbying House Republicans to water down a bill passed by the Senate last week that would apply new sanctions against Russia for its interference in last year’s election in the U.S. and allow Congress to block any future moves by the president to lift penalties against Moscow, Julie Hirschfeld Davis and Matt Flegenheimer report at the New York Times.

Russia canceled a meeting between senior U.S. and Russian officials in St. Petersburg that was intended to resolve “irritants” in the two counties’ relationship after the U.S. decision to expand sanctions against Russian individuals and legal entities in response to the ongoing crisis in Ukraine, CNN’s Zachary Cohen, Jill Dougherty and Lauran Koran report.

The U.S. should now move to punish those responsible for human rights violations in Ukraine since Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, the Trump administration’s move to expand sanctions against Russia Tuesday an encouraging sign that things are moving in the right direction in terms of increasing pressure on President Putin for his illegal activities in Ukraine, writes the Washington Post editorial board.

IRAQ

Mosul’s historic Great Mosque of al-Nuri was bombed by the Islamic State last night, destroying the site of the militants’ first announcement of their self-declared caliphate across Iraq and Syria, Iraq’s military confirmed. Tamer El-Ghobashy reports at the Wall Street Journal.

The Islamic State acknowledged its own defeat by destroying the Great Mosque of al-Nuri, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said, while the Iraqi ministry called the destruction of the mosque “another historical crime.” Martin Chulov and Kareem Shaheen report at the Guardian.

US-led airstrikes continue. US and coalition forces carried out 12 airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria on June 20. Separately, partner forces conducted two strikes against targets in Iraq. [Central Command]

AFGHANISTAN

A car bomb outside a bank in the capital of the southern Afghanistan province of Helmand killed or wounded dozens of civilians and members of the security forces this morning, with no immediate claim of responsibility for the attack, Reuters reports.

A video depicting an American and an Australian abducted outside the American University in Afghanistan in Kabul last August was released to media outlets by the Taliban yesterday, the AP reports.

THE PHILIPPINES

Islamic State-linked militants in the Philippine city of Marawi are cornered and running out of firepower, the Philippine military said today, Manuel Mogato and Simon Lewis reporting at Reuters.

The Philippines and its neighbors Indonesia and Malaysia will cooperate closely to stem the flow of militants, weapons, funds and propaganda across their borders and are meeting in Manilla today to discuss a joint plan of action amid the ongoing insurgency in the Philippine city of Marawi, Teresa Cerojano and Jim Gomez report at the AP.

Defeating the Islamic State-linked insurgents in the Philippines will require better governance and reaching a durable peace with the militants, Zachary Abuza charting the manifold failures of President Duterte’s administration leading to the current crisis at the New York Times.

TRUMP ADMINISTRATION FOREIGN POLICY

One of President Trump’s newest appointees Richard Hohlt is a registered agent of Saudi Arabia, earning hundreds of thousands of dollars by lobbying on behalf of the Kingdom, according to Department of Justice records reviewed by the Center for Public Integrity’s Carrie Levine.

Indian Prime Minister is pushing for U.S. approval of his request to purchase a naval version of the Predator drone ahead of his meeting with President Trump in Washington next week in which he will attempt to reinvigorate U.S.-India relations, Sanjeev Miglani and David Brunnstrom report at Reuters.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

The Trump administration filed its final brief urging the Supreme Court to reinstate the president’s revised travel ban and hear its appeal of a lower court’s ruling blocking the order yesterday, the justices scheduled to convene today, Lydia Wheeler reports at the Hill.

A stabbing at Michigan airport by a Canadian man yesterday morning is being investigated as an act of terrorism, Attorney General Jeff Sessions said yesterday, Devlin Barrett and Mark Berman reporting at the Washington Post.

The video depositions of two psychologists who helped devise the brutal interrogation techniques used on terror suspects in secret C.I.A. prisons in a suit filed in Federal District Court in Spokane, Washington, brought by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of several former C.I.A. prisoners are published in full at the New York Times, Sheri Fink and James Risen explaining the context. 

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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