The Early Edition: January 17, 2018

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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

The special counsel Robert Mueller subpoenaed the former White House chief strategist and Trump campaign aide Steve Bannon last week, according to a source familiar with the matter, marking the first known occasion that Mueller has issued a grand jury subpoena to seek information from a top Trump adviser, and the subpoena follows comments made by Bannon – quoted in the book “Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House” by Michael Wolff – about the meeting between Trump campaign officials and Russians at Trump Tower in June 2016. Michael S. Schmidt reports at the New York Times.

Mueller’s subpoena of Bannon suggests that his investigation into Russian interference is not close to reaching a conclusion, the news of Mueller’s subpoena came hours before his appearance before the House Intelligence Committee. Karoun Demirjian, Carol D. Leonnig and Rosalind S. Helderman report at the Washington Post.

Mueller’s subpoena could amount to a pressure tactic to secure Bannon’s full cooperation, Sarah N. Lynch and Patricia Zengerle explain at Reuters.

Bannon was questioned by the House Intelligence Committee yesterday as part of their investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election, and refused to answer certain questions despite being issued a mandatory subpoena during the meeting to force him to testify, claiming that he was unwilling to answer some questions due to a request from White House attorneys. Byron Tau reports at the Wall Street Journal.

Bannon “was willing to answer our questions but [was] under instructions from the White House not to,” the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee Adam Schiff (Calif.) told reporters yesterday, saying that this amounted to “a gag order from the White House.” Ben Jacobs reports at the Guardian.

Bannon indicated to lawmakers that he would only answer questions about the Trump campaign but not about his time in the transition team or the White House, according to multiple sources, adding that he would only answer those questions when asked by Mueller. Katie Bo Williams and Olivia Beavers report at the Hill.

The top Republican on the panel Mike Conaway (Texas) said that the subpoena remains in effect and answers to outstanding questions are expected to be sought by the committee, Jeremy Herb and Manu Raju report at CNN.

Republican and Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee attributed Bannon’s refusal to answer questions to the White House, Conaway and Schiff confirmed that Bannon and the White House suggested that some answers could potentially infringe upon executive privilege, but did not specifically assert executive privilege to avoid answering questions. Kyle Cheney reports at POLITICO.

Executive privilege will not stop Bannon from sharing information with Mueller and, according to a source close to Bannon, “Mueller will hear everything Bannon has to say.” Betsy Woodruff reports at The Daily Beast.

The setting of a trial date for Trump’s former campaign chairman Paul Manafort and his associated Rick Gates was delayed by a federal judge yesterday, Manafort’s defense lawyers stated that they would need more time file motions. Sarah N. Lynch reports at Reuters.

“Republicans delude themselves in claiming that the Russia probe is a partisan concoction,” David Ignatius writes at the Washington Post, arguing that the trashing of the F.B.I.’s reputation does not reflect the reality that the investigation was motivated by its own independent reporting rather than motivated by the dossier compiled by former British Intelligence Christopher Steele, which alleged connections between Trump and Russia.

SYRIA

A proposal for a 30,000-strong military force on the Turkish-Syrian border consisting of the U.S.-backed Kurdish (Y.P.G.)-led Syrian Democratic Forces (S.D.F.) could further divide the Syria by creating an autonomous Kurdish enclave, the border force could ignite a new phase in the war as Turkey, Syria and Iran have strongly denounced the proposal, with Turkey expressing particular outrage and the Turkish President Reçep Tayyip Erdoğan has threatened to invade Afrin –  another Syrian Kurdish enclave near the Turkish border. Anne Barnard reports at the New York Times.

Erdoğan has threatened imminent military action on the Y.P.G.-controlled enclaves of Afrin and Manbij, the Turkish government considers the Y.P.G. to be an extension of the Turkey-based Kurdistan Workers’ Party (P.K.K.), which it has designated as a terrorist group. The BBC reports.

The northeastern area of Syria, where the U.S.-proposed border force would be established, is not believed to be a target for a Turkish ground attack, Erdoğan has also said that he has not consulted Trump on any planned operations. Martin Chulov and Kareem Shaheen report at the Guardian.

“We are not operating in Afrin. We are supporting our partners in defeating remaining I.S.I.S. pockets along the Middle Euphrates River Valley,” the spokesperson for the U.S.-led coalition Col. Ryan Dillon was quoted as saying by the Turkish Anadolu news agency, suggesting that U.S.-led forces may not intervene if Turkey launches an operation. Al Jazeera reports.

The political arm of the S.D.F., the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (P.Y.D.), has today called on the U.N. Security Council to “move immediately” to ensure the security of Afrin, saying that the world would bear the responsibility for the lives of the people in the enclave should Turkey launch an operation. Sarah El Deeb reports at the AP.

Erdoğan told the N.A.T.O. Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg that Turkey would take all necessary precautions to ensure its national security, in a phone call yesterday, according to presidential sources. Reuters reports.

The chief negotiator for the Syrian opposition Nasr al-Hariri has urged Trump and European Union leaders to increase efforts to force the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to negotiate, including putting pressure on Russia and possible sanctions against the Assad regime. Patrick Wintour reports at the Guardian.

The Syrian rebels in the Damascus enclave of Eastern Ghouta released 24 captives as part of a Syrian Arab Red Crescent-mediated deal, state media reported yesterday, which was confirmed by a U.N. official. Reuters reports.

U.S.-led airstrikes continue. U.S. and coalition forces carried out 96 airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria and Iraq between January 5 and January 11. [Central Command]

ARREST OF EX-C.I.A. OFFICER

The former C.I.A. officer Jerry Chun Sing Lee was arrested Monday and charged with unlawful retention of national defense information, he has been suspected of providing information on U.S. spying operations and U.S. informants. Del Quentin Wilber reports at the Wall Street Journal.

Lee’s arrest comes after an F.B.I. inquiry that started in 2012, two years after C.I.A. began losing its informants in China – which led to questions about a possible mole in the agency, the possibility of a Chinese government hack into C.I.A.’s covert communications, or a combination of both. Adam Goldman reports at the New York Times.

NORTH KOREA

North Korea will send a 230-member cheering squad to the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics in South Korea next month, officials said today, the South Korean President Moon Jae-in has said that North Korea’ participation would “serve as a chance to warm solidly frozen South-North ties.” Hyung-Jin Kim reports at the AP.

“I think we all need to be very sober and clear-eyed about the current situation,” the Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said yesterday about the North Korean nuclear threat, speaking at a Canada and U.S.-hosted summit in Vancouver, which was held to explore ways to put pressure on the Pyongyang regime. Carol Morello reports at the Washington Post.

Tillerson said that talks were the “best option” and avoided a question about a preemptive strike against North Korea, saying that he would not comment on issues “that have yet to be decided among the National Security Council or the president.” David Brunnstrom and David Ljunggren report at Reuters.

Japan’s Foreign Minister warned about North Korea’s charm offensive at the Vancouver summit, saying that now was not the time to ease pressure on the regime, and Pyongyang’s outreach is a ruse to “buy some time to continue their nuclear missile program.”  Joshua Bergliner and Taehoon Lee report at CNN.

The Defense Secretary Jim Mattis called the situation with North Korea “sobering,” in comments en route to the Vancouver summit. Ellen Mitchell reports at the Hill.

The North Korea-linked Lazarus group carried out hacking operations against cryptocurrency investors, the U.S. cybersecurity firm Recorded Future has alleged. Jonathan Cheng reports at the Wall Street Journal.

The reaction to the emergency message mistakenly issued in Hawaii at the weekend demonstrates a paranoia analogous to the panic during the Cold War, and progress on the crisis should require moving away from a Cold War paradigm. Ishaan Tharoor writes at the Washington Post.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

The U.S. will withhold at least $65m in funding to the U.N.R.W.A. Palestinian aid agency, U.S. officials said yesterday, following from a threat made by Trump on his Twitter account at the beginning of January, with the State Department saying that the U.S. wanted to see a “fundamental re-examination” of the U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees. Felicia Schwartz reports at the Wall Street Journal.

The U.S. would provide $60m to U.N.R.W.A. but the $65m would be withheld “for future consideration,” the State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert said yesterday, the announcement was welcomed by Israel and denounced by the Palestinians. Gardiner Harris and Rick Gladstone report at the New York Times.

Global N.G.O.s have condemned the Trump administration’s decision to withhold funds, saying that it would have considerable impact on humanitarian efforts. Al Jazeera reports.

The fiery speech by the Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas earlier this week reveals the weakness of the Palestinian leadership, Abbas cannot engage with Trump if he is to survive politically, international efforts are unlikely to deliver any results, the Palestinian cause is no longer a priority for many Arab nations, and violence would lead to disaster. Loveday Morris explains at the Washington Post.

Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, and jeopardize the possibility of a two-state solution, has compromised Jordan – an important U.S. ally that has been key to regional stability. David Gardner writes at the Financial Times.

YEMEN

At least 450 civilians were killed in Yemen in December, according to a Geneva-based human rights monitor. Al Jazeera reports.

The situation in Yemen means that almost every Yemeni child requires humanitarian aid, the U.N. News Centre reports.

AFGHANISTAN

There has been a significant increase in U.S. and Afghan airstrikes on the Taliban, the increase reflects the change in the rules of engagement announced by the Trump administration as part of the new Afghanistan strategy, however it is unclear whether the new strategy is achieving its aims. Max Bearak reports at the Washington Post.

The Taliban in Afghanistan have been using high-tech equipment to kill Afghan forces, and officials have blamed a special forces-style Taliban “Red Unit.” Najim Rahim and Rod Nordland report at the New York Times.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

The U.S. Senate yesterday voted to advance legislation renewing section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which allows the National Security Agency to collect intelligence from foreign nationals without a warrant. Martin Matishak reports at POLITICO.

A draft version of the Pentagon’s Nuclear Posture Review has been sent to Trump for approval and would approve the use of nuclear weapons in response to devastating non-nuclear attacks on U.S. infrastructure, such as cyberattacks. David E. Sanger and William J. Broad report at the New York Times.

The Navy is filing criminal charges against the commanders of the two U.S. destroyers that collided in Asia last year, Rebecca Kheel reports at the Hill.

European leaders have agreed with Iran to hold an “intensive and very serious dialogue” on Iran’s ballistic missile program and its role in the region, the announcement coming after Trump threatened to rip up the 2015 Iran nuclear deal if his demands are not met. Michael Peel, Guy Chazan and Najmeh Bozorgmehr report at the Financial Times.

The U.S. relationship with African nations is “deeper than any one alleged comment,” the State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert said yesterday, in response to allegations that Trump called African nations and other countries a “shithole.” Max Greenwood reports at the Hill.

President Trump hosted the Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev at the White House yesterday, Trump thanked Nazarbayev for “providing crucial support” to U.S. forces in Afghanistan and said that the two nations have “worked together to advance peace and security in the region and far beyond the region.” Rebecca Ballhaus reports at the Wall Street Journal.

The “forever prisoners” at Guantánamo Bay filed a habeas corpus petition last week and their case presents a challenge to America’s commitment to its founding principles, in spite of Trump’s comments about the prisoners and the detention facility during the 2016 presidential campaign. The New York Times editorial board writes. 

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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