The Early Edition: November 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-RUSSIA

Attorney General Jeff Sessions appeared before the House Judiciary Committee yesterday and maintained that he had “always told the truth” about connections between the Trump campaign and Russia, saying that he had “no recollection” of a campaign round-table at which the aide George Papadopoulos was present until he saw the news reports and added that he had “pushed back” against the aide’s suggestion of a meeting between Trump and the Russian President Vladimir Putin. Matt Apuzzo and Nicholas Fandos report at the New York Times.

Sessions addressed the apparent discrepancies between his recent recollections and his previous testimonies about Trump-Russia connections. Democrats on the committee questioned Sessions on his interactions with Papadopoulos and the former Trump campaign foreign policy adviser Carter Page, who had testified before the House Intelligence Committee over a week ago and said that he had told Sessions of his plan to travel to Moscow in 2016. Matt Zapotosky and Sari Horowitz report at the Washington Post.

The four key points from Sessions’ hearing are provided by Amber Phillips at the Washington Post.

Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) asked Sessions about the dossier alleging connections between the Trump campaign and Russia, Jordan drawing attention to the Clinton campaign and Democratic National Committee (D.N.C.) partially funding the dossier, the F.B.I.’s apparent payment of the author of the document – the former British Intelligence officer Christopher Steele – and the apparent cooperation between the Democratic Party and the federal government to secure a warrant to spy on Trump campaign officials; Sessions’ responded that the apparent connections were “not enough basis to appoint a special counsel.” Aaron Blake explains at the Washington Post, saying that the Attorney General’s comments would probably irk the president.

The F.B.I. is scrutinizing more than 60 money transfers the Russian foreign ministry sent to embassies around the world “to finance election campaign of 2016,” it is not clear how the funds were used by the embassies and the Russian embassy and foreign ministry have denounced the story. Jason Leopold, Anthony Cormier and Jessica Garrison reveal at BuzzFeed News.

The co-founder of opposition research firm Fusion G.P.S., Glenn Simpson, appeared before the House Intelligence Committee yesterday in a closed session, the firm was behind the controversial Steele dossier and a lawyer for Simpson criticized the Trump administration for its attempts to discredit Fusion G.P.S., Olivia Beavers reports at the Hill.

Russia’s lower house unanimously voted in favor of legislation allowing the government to designate international media outlets as foreign agents today, making the move after the Russian state-funded R.T. television channel complied with a request from the U.S. Justice Department to register as a foreign agent. Vladimir Isachenkov reports at the AP.

Did Sessions’ changing testimony amount to perjury? Jan Wolfe provides an analysis at Reuters.

Republicans on the Judiciary committee attempted to deflect from the Russia investigations and Sessions’ hearing was dominated by his inability to recall events “that one would think most people would,” the New York Times editorial board writes, asking “what else are you forgetting, Mr. Attorney General?”

“It’s hard to overstate the mind-blowing stupidity” of Donald Trump Jr.’s posts on Twitter about his communications with WikiLeaks, an organization that was affiliated with the Russians during the 2016 presidential election, Jill Filipovic writes at CNN.

JUSTICE DEPARTMENT

The Attorney General Jeff Sessions confirmed that he had directed Justice Department prosecutors to “evaluate” the concerns raised by Republicans about Clinton, an Obama-era uranium deal with Russia and other issues in his testimony to the House Judiciary Committee yesterday. Katie Bo Williams reports at the Hill.

A decision to appoint a special counsel to investigate former presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and Clinton-related issues would “shatter post-Watergate norms” and would suggest that the Justice Department has been further politicized and weaponized by the Trump administration. To date, Sessions has largely resisted Republican pressure to appoint a special counsel, but he has been put in a difficult position, Peter Baker explains at the New York Times.

The demands for Clinton’s prosecution “are profoundly inappropriate and degrading to democracy,” the Justice Department must commit to the rule of law in the face of the political pressure from the president and his allies, the Washington Post editorial board writes.

CYBERSECURITY, PRIVACY AND TECHNOLOGY

Around one-sixth of U.S. government computers have been using software produced by the Russia-based Kaspersky Lab, the assistant secretary for cyber-security and communications at the Department for Homeland Security (D.H.S.) Jeannette Manfra said yesterday, adding that federal agencies have until Dec. 12 to remove the software which has been connected to Russian intelligence operations. Paul Sonne reports at the Wall Street Journal.

The Trump administration is expected to publicly release revised rules on disclosing cyber security flaws today, according to an anonymous officials, the rules intend to aid agencies in weighing the balance between maintaining secrecy and the need to warn manufacturers about possible breaches. Dustin Volz reports at Reuters.

The British Prime Minister Theresa May and the Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy separately claimed that Russian operatives had intervened in European elections, May accused Russia of attempting to “sow discord” through online and media campaigns, and Rajoy said that Russian bots spread “fake news” about Spain during Catalonia’s independence referendum last month. William Booth and Michael Birnbaum report at the Washington Post.

The chief of Britain’s National Cyber Security Center warned yesterday that Russian hackers have tried to carry out cyber-attacks in the U.K. in a summary of a speech to be delivered today, making the comments following a speech by Theresa May targeting Russia for its interference. David D. Kirkpatrick reports at the New York Times.

Theresa May offered the appropriate response to Putin and Russia’s interference in western democracies, an approach that sharply contrasts with President Trump. Andrew Rosenthal writes at the New York Times.

NORTH KOREA

China will send a special envoy to North Korea and reopen a channel of dialogue with Pyongyang, the Chinese Foreign Ministry announced today, a week after Trump visited China and urged President Xi Jinping to exert more pressure on North Korea; however it is unclear how much Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles program will feature in discussions. Simon Denyer reports at the Washington Post.

“He should know that he is just a hideous criminal sentenced to death by the Korean people,” North Korea’s state Rodong Sinmun newspaper said today about President Trump, responding the insults Trump leveled at the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. The AFP reports.

A war with North Korea would end in a “nuclear holocaust,” the Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte warned yesterday, making the comments at the last day of the A.S.E.A.N. summit and following Trump’s 12-day tour of Asia. Al Jazeera reports.

The U.N. General Assembly’s Human Rights Committee approved a resolution condemning North Korea for serious human rights violations yesterday and its decision to divert resources from civilians to developing its nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles program. Edith M. Lederer reports at the AP.

YEMEN

The Trump administration unfroze Yemen’s central bank funds yesterday, allowing the Saudi-backed Yemeni administration to service its debt and resume salary payments, the measure forms part of U.S. efforts to counter Iran’s influence in Yemen and the region. Katrina Manson reports at the Financial Times.

The Saudi-led coalition bombed an airport in Yemen’s capital of Sana’a yesterday, according to Yemeni officials, the capital is held by the Houthi rebels and the U.N. stated that most of the airport remained intact and would not impact humanitarian operations. Ahmed Al-Haj reports at the AP.

Houthi officials claimed that the attack on the airport was intended to disrupt humanitarian efforts and said that the air strike destroyed a radio navigation system crucial for coordinating aid shipments. Al Jazeera reports.

SAUDI ARABIA

The Lebanese President Michel Aoun said today that Saudi Arabia have detained the Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, adding that the action was in “violation of the Vienna agreements and human rights law.” Hariri unexpectedly resigned on Nov. 4 from the Saudi capital of Riyadh in a televised announcement, Reuters reports.

Saudi Arabia is set to be the second country to acquire a T.H.A.A.D. anti-missile defense system from the U.S. defense company Lockheed Martin, a senior executive of the company said yesterday, the announcement coming amid increased Saudi-Iran tensions and a ballistic missile that was launched at the capital of Riyadh by Yemen’s Houthi rebels on Nov. 4. Aya Batrawy reports at the AP.

Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s approach to domestic and foreign affairs has led to debate around the region about his motivations, with some analysts believing that his bold actions – including the ongoing Yemen war, an escalating in tension with Iran, and an intervention in Lebanese politics – reflect his conviction that he has the support of President Trump. Ben Hubbard and David D. Kirkpatrick provide an analysis at the New York Times.

SYRIA

The Syrian Kurdish P.Y.D. political party today welcomed Defense Secretary Jim Mattis’ comments earlier this week saying that the U.S. forces should play a longer-term role in Syria, even after the Islamic State group has been defeated. Reuters reports.

The Turkish foreign ministry said yesterday that the U.S. Defense Department’s approach to an agreement between the Syrian Kurdish Y.P.G. militia and Islamic State militants was “appalling,” saying that the agreement for the Islamic State militants to withdraw from the city of Raqqa, which was reported by the BBC at the weekend, was “extremely troubling.” Reuters reports.

The bombing of a Syrian market in the rebel-held town of Atareb earlier this week shows that Turkey, Russia and Iran are not effective guarantors of “de-escalation” zones, at least 61 people were killed by a series of airstrikes according to Syrian Civil Defense search-and-rescue volunteers. Philip Issa reports at the AP.

The Russian defense ministry appeared to rely on photographs from a video game to provide “irrefutable evidence” that the U.S. cooperated with Islamic State militants in a series of tweets yesterday, the ministry deleted the tweets once the origins of the evidence were thrown into question and blamed the incident on a civilian employee. Shaun Walker reports at the Guardian.

U.S.-led airstrikes continue. U.S. and coalition forces carried out 10 airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria on November 12. Separately, partner forces conducted one strike against targets in Iraq. [Central Command]

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

The Zimbabwean military have deployed tanks on the streets of the capital Harare in an apparent coup against President Robert Mugabe, the military have denied that they are staging a military takeover and claimed that Mugabe was “safe.” The CNN provide rolling coverage of the situation.

Debate over President Trump’s ability to authorize an unprovoked nuclear attack has caused division among senators, a session on authorization was held by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee yesterday, Karoun Demirjian explains at the Washington Post.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson met with Myanmar’s leader Aung San Suu Kyi today and said that the U.S. would consider “evidence based” sanctions against individuals responsible for violence against the Rohingya Muslim minority. Esther Htusan reports at the AP.

The House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly in favor of a nearly $700bn defense policy bill, Rebecca Kheel reports at the Hill.

The International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (I.C.T.Y.) is set to give its verdict on the former Bosnian Serb general Ratko Mladic who has been accused of war crimes, Daria Sito-Sucic reports at Reuters.

A U.S.-funded media outlet has been started a campaign to counter the Islamic State group’s recruitment in Central Asia, Jessica Donati and Nathan Hodge report at the Wall Street Journal.

The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee confirmed Trump’s nominee to head the Department of Homeland Security (D.H.S.) yesterday, Kirstjen Nielsen is a cybersecurity expert and served under White House Chief of Staff John Kelly when he led the D.H.S., Morgan Chalfant reports at the Hill.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) issued a blistering attack on Trump’s nominee to be the general counsel of the Department of Transportation, saying yesterday that Steven Bradbury’s attempts to justify torture during the Bush administration should disbar him from consideration. Andrew Desiderio reports at The Daily Beast.

The Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte praised China today for its “critical” role in the campaign against Islamic State-affiliated militants in the southern Philippine city of Marawi, comments that may not be well-received by the U.S. and Australia who support the operation from its early stages. Karen Lema and Martin Perry report at Reuters.

Trump’s 12-day “adulation tour” of Asia was “closer to a pilgrimage than a projection of power,” David Ignatius writes at the Washington Post, saying that the president failed to articulate U.S. policy, failed to stand up to Russian President Vladimir Putin, and gave space for China to expand its influence in the region and the world. 

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About the Author(s)

Pouneh Ahari

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