The Early Edition: January 30, 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 F.B.I. Deputy Director Andrew McCabe abruptly left his post yesterday after months of criticism from the president, McCabe was expected to retire soon, but had told people that he had felt pressure to leave. His departure takes place before the release of a report by the Justice Department Inspector General Michael E. Horowitz which is expected to be critical of some F.B.I. actions in 2016 during their investigation into former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server and the investigation into connections between the Trump campaign and Russia, Adam Goldman and Matt Apuzzo reports at the New York Times.

F.B.I. Director Christopher Wray’s message to bureau employees about McCabe’s departure suggested that Horowitz’s upcoming report on the F.B.I.’s actions in 2016 formed part of McCabe’s decision. Shimon Prokupecz, Pamela Brown and Eli Watkins report at CNN.

Trump and Republicans had pointed out McCabe’s wife’s connections to the Democratic Party and attacked McCabe for an alleged conflict of interest, however Democrats said that the attacks were an attempt to discredit the F.B.I.’s investigations. Aruna Viswanatha and Del Quentin Wilber report at the Wall Street Journal.

The White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said that Trump and the White House had not been part of McCabe’s decision to leave, nevertheless McCabe had been under pressure since he became acting F.B.I. director in May after James Comey was fired, and in July 2017 Trump asked why Attorney General Jeff Sessions had not fired McCabe. Mary Kay Mallonnee, Laura Jarrett, Shimon Prokupecz and Dan Merica report at CNN.  

The Republican-led House Intelligence Committee voted yesterday to make public a contentious Republican-authored memo that accuses the F.B.I. of misusing its authority under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (F.I.S.A.) in order to spy on the Trump campaign foreign policy adviser Carter Page. The Democrats have said that the memo, drafted by Trump ally Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) is part of an effort to discredit the F.B.I. investigation into Trump-Russia connections, Byron Tau report at the Wall Street Journal.

Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee contended that releasing the memo would shed light on political bias that may have influenced the origins of the Russia investigation, including an apparent reliance on the dossier compiled by former British Intelligence officer Christopher Steele, however the Justice Department warned last week that publication would be “extraordinarily reckless” due to its inclusion of classified information. The memo covers various actions, including those by the Obama administration and a decision by the Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein last spring to extend the surveillance warrant of Page, Nicholas Fandos reports at the New York Times.

The House Intelligence Committee voted along party lines on releasing the memo and the top Democrat on the panel Rep. Adam B. Schiff (Calif.) said that the votes “politicized” the intelligence process, current and former intelligence officials have also expressed concern about the vote and the implications for national security. Karoun Demirjian and Devlin Barrett report at the Washington Post.

The Trump administration decided yesterday not to impose new sanctions against Russia under legislation that was passed by Congress last year authorizing the administration to take such action in response to Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election, a spokesperson for the State Department saying that the sanctions were not necessary because “the legislation is, in fact, serving as a deterrent.” Elana Schor reports at POLITICO.

The Trump administration drew up a list of potential targets for Russia-related sanctions, but decided not to levy sanction against them, with the State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert saying that the legislation which gives authority to the administration to impose new sanctions had led to foreign governments abandoning “planned or announced purchases,” estimated to be several billion dollars, in “Russian defense acquisitions.” Carol Morello reports at the Washington Post.

The Treasury Department decided to release the list of senior Russian political figures and businessmen late yesterday, but said that the report does not constitute a sanctions list. Samuel Rubenfeld and James Marson report at the Wall Street Journal.

The release of the list was an “unfriendly act” that further complicates U.S.-Russia relations, the Russian President Vladimir Putin said in response, adding that Russia would, for now, refrain from retaliatory steps. Reuters reports.

The C.I.A. Director Mike Pompeo said yesterday that hadn’t seen a “significant decrease” in Russian subversion and added that he has “every expectation” that Russia would continue its campaign to undermine elections, including the upcoming U.S. mid-term elections. Gordon Corera reports at the BBC.

Democrats on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee yesterday called on the panel’s chairman Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) to subpoena the Department of Homeland Security (D.H.S.) for documents related to Russia’s hacking of election-related systems in 21 states ahead of the 2016 presidential election. Morgan Chalfant reports at the Hill.

The former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon is scheduled to appear before the House Intelligence Committee tomorrow, during his last appearance before the panel, Bannon repeatedly refused to answer a series of questions and it was reported that Trump ordered Bannon to limit his testimony. Jacqueline Thomsen reports at the Hill.

“We’ve had new information that raises more questions,” the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee Mark Warner (D-Va.) said of the investigation into possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia and referring to “end-of-the-year document dumps” that open up new lines of inquiry. Susan B. Glasser reports at POLITICO Magazine.

The series of recent news stories and revelations about the Russia investigations have created a political storm, including developments this week relating to McCabe’s departure and the Nunes-drafted memo, and reports last week that Trump called for the firing of special counsel Robert Mueller. Stephen Collinson provides an analysis at CNN.

The departure of Comey loyalists, such as McCabe, offers an opportunity to clean up the F.B.I. and a chance for Wray to rebuild the bureau’s reputation, the Wall Street Journal editorial board writes.

McCabe is expected to be replaced by David Bowdich. Marwa Eltagouri provides an overview of Bowdich’s experience and his role in the F.B.I. at the Washington Post.

The re-election of the Russia-friendly Czech President Milos Zeman on Saturday reinforces the danger of Russia’s subversion campaign in the West, Zeman’s narrow victory was partly aided by an online disinformation campaign against his opponent Jiri Drahos. The Washington Post editorial board writes.

AFGHANISTAN

“We don’t want to talk with the Taliban,” Trump said yesterday at a lunch with members of the U.N. Security Council, saying that the series of recent attacks on civilians carried out by the Afghan Taliban meant that talks could not take place now. Louis Nelson reports at POLITICO.

“The Taliban have crossed a red line and lost the chance for peace,” a spokesperson for the Afghan President Ashraf Ghani said yesterday after Trump’s comments about talks with the Taliban and the recent deadly attacks, adding that Afghan government would have to “look for peace on the battlefield.” Mirwais Harooni and Jibran Ahmad report at Reuters.

The U.S. expressed confidence that the Pakistan-linked Taliban Haqqani network was behind the attack that killed more than 100 people in the Afghan capital of Kabul on Saturday, the finding could further strain relations with Pakistan, which have deteriorated since the U.S. announced earlier this month that it would suspend around $2bn of military assistance to Pakistan. Phil Stewart and Michelle Nichols report at Reuters.

The Defense Department has classified key data on Afghanistan that is used to measure its progress in Afghanistan, according to the government watchdog the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (S.I.G.A.R.), the data – which includes information on the size of the Afghan army and the number of civilian casualties from airstrikes – will only be available to senior U.S. officials. Jessica Donati and Craig Nelson report at the Wall Street Journal.

The S.I.G.A.R. Inspector General John Sopko criticized the Defense Department for its decision to classify the data, saying that the order was “troubling for a number of reasons.” Alex Johnson reports at NBC News.

Trump’s comments on talks with the Taliban apparently break with the Afghanistan strategy put forth in August 2017, however current and former U.S. officials have said that defeating the Taliban is not just a military problem and stability for the country requires negotiation. Roberta Rampton and Jonathan Landay observe at Reuters.

SYRIA

Pro-Syrian government forces carried out an air campaign against the rebel-held province of Idlib yesterday, the attacks took place on the eve of Russia-hosted Syrian peace talks in the coastal city of Sochi, which aims to create a political framework for the post-conflict scenario, and Russia has instigated the initiative as U.N.-led talks have achieved little success. Louisa Loveluck and Zakaria Zakaria report at Washington Post.

At least 23 civilians were killed yesterday by pro-Syrian government forces airstrikes in Idlib, the province is supposedly one of the “de-escalation” zones brokered by Russia, Iran and Turkey. Al Jazeera reports.

Tests by laboratories working for the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (O.P.C.W.) have found links between the Syrian government’s chemical weapons stockpile and an attack in August 2013 on the Damascus suburb of Ghouta, and an independent specialist said that he did not believe that “there is a cat in hell’s chance the rebels or Islamic State were responsible for the Aug. 21 Ghouta attack.” Anthony Deutsch reports at Reuters.

The Turkish attack on the Syrian Kurdish militia in the northern Syrian area of Afrin has undermined the fledgling democracy pursued by the Kurdish movement and the U.S. silence in response to the Turkish operation, which began over a week ago, reveals that it has “tacitly condoned” the attacks on its allies. The commander of the Women’s Protection Units (Y.P.J.) in Afrin, Nujin Derik, writes at the New York Times, calling on Western powers to condemn the Turkey and its assault on the Kurds.

U.S.-led airstrikes continue. U.S. and coalition forces carried out 60 airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria and Iraq between January 19 and January 25. [Central Command]

IRAN

The U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley yesterday led 14 other members of the Security Council on a trip that included a stop to see what the U.S. says is evidence that Iran is arming Yemen’s Houthi rebels. According to Haley, the purpose of the trip was not to focus on the 2015 nuclear deal, but to show the range of Iran’s destabilizing actions in the region, Felicia Schwartz reports at the Wall Street Journal.

“We believe what the Council saw today makes it clear that the evidence continues to grow that Iran is blatantly ignoring its international obligations,” Haley said yesterday in a statement, to which the Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif responded on Twitter that the trip was an attempt “to create an Iranphobic narrative at the U.N. Security Council through wining and dining and fake ‘evidence.’” Michal Schwirtz reports at the New York Times.

NORTH KOREA

North Korea’s annual winter military exercises have been less extensive than usual, according to U.S. officials familiar with the matter, saying that the scaling back demonstrates the impact of international sanctions on the country’s economy and military. Michael R. Gordon and Jonathan Cheng report at the Wall Street Journal.

North Korea has canceled a joint pre-Winter Olympics concert scheduled to be held with South Korea, blaming the “insulting” coverage by South Korean media of its participation in next month’s Pyeonghcang Winter Olympics for the decision. Choe Sang-Hun reports at the New York Times.

GULF-ARAB DISPUTE

The blockade of Qatar by Saudi Arabia, U.A.E., Egypt and Bahrain has not worked, the Qatari Finance Minister Ali Shareef al-Emadi said yesterday, making the comments ahead of strategic talks with the Trump administration and saying that the decision by the Saudi-led bloc to isolate Qatar in June 2017, due to its alleged ties to terrorism and close relationship with Iran, had not “cornered” Qatar economically. Dion Nissenbaum and Doug Cameron report at the Wall Street Journal.

Qatar is planning to expand the overseas U.S. Al Udeid airbase, which serves as an important base for U.S. operations in the Middle East. The decision comes amid the ongoing crisis in the Gulf, Al Jazeera reports.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

Southern Yemeni separatists took control of the port city of Aden today, the U.A.E-backed forces made the gain after two days of fighting against forces loyal to the Saudi-based President Abdrabbu Mansour Hadi, raising the possibility of a fracture in the Saudi-led coalition, of which the U.A.E. is a member. Muhammed Mukhashaf reports at Reuters.

A Russian SU-27 jet unsafely intercepted a U.S. Navy surveillance plane flying over the Black Sea yesterday, the U.S. pilots reported that the Russian jet came within five feet of the plane and the State Department issued a statement accusing the Russians of “flagrantly violating existing agreements and international law.” Ryan Browne and Zachary Cohen report at CNN.

The Trump administration resumed accepting refugees from 11 nations deemed to be “high-risk,” the Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security (D.H.S.) Kirstjen Nielsen said in a statement yesterday that there would be additional security measures making it “harder for bad actors to exploit our refugee program.” Nick Miroff reports at the Washington Post.

Turkey carried out airstrikes against militants in northern Iraq, the state-run Anadolu news agency said yesterday. Reuters reports. 

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