The Early Edition: February 1, 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

Trump asked the Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein if he was “on my team” when they met at the White House in December, the comments could raise further questions about possible attempts by the president to interfere in special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Trump-Russia connections and whether the president obstructed justice, which is being overseen by Rosenstein. Pamela Brown, Evan Perez and Laura Jarrett report at CNN.

The F.B.I. issued a statement yesterday expressing “grave concerns” about a Republican-authored memo and the “material omissions” that undermine its accuracy, the memo, drafted by Republican chairman of the House Intelligence Committee Devin Nunes (Calif.), claims that the F.B.I. and the Justice Department acted inappropriately when obtaining a warrant to surveil the former Trump campaign foreign policy adviser Carter Page and casts doubt on the early stages of the Russia investigation, however Trump has called for the memo to be released and the F.B.I. statement publicly puts the bureau’s director Christopher A. Wray at odds with the president. Adam Goldman and Nicholas Fandos report at the New York Times.

The statement set out that the F.B.I. was provided “a limited opportunity to review this memo before the committee voted to release it,” referring to the House Intelligence Committee’s vote along party lines on Monday to release the memo, which comes amid attacks by the president and the Republican Party on the bureau and Justice Department. Matt Zapotosky reports at the Washington Post.

The Republicans have departed from nonpartisan tradition on the House Intelligence Committee due to “growing alarm” over special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential campaign, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee Adam Schiff (Calif.) writes at the Washington Post, attacking the Republicans for their decision to release the memo and for undermining norms of office.

Schiff yesterday accused Republicans on the panel of sending “an altered version” of the classified memo to the White House, calling on Republicans to “immediately withdraw the document that it sent to the White House,” and the Republicans hit back saying that Schiff and Democrats were “complaining about minor edits.” Elana Schor reports at POLITICO.

The memo would be “released here pretty quick” for the “whole world” to see, the White House chief of staff John Kelly said yesterday. The White House has yet to approve its release, but there are suggestions that it would be published today, the BBC reports.

The former spokesperson for Trump’s legal team Mark Corallo plans to tell Mueller about a conference call between Trump and the White House communications director Hope Hicks in which they discussed the June 2016 Trump Tower meeting between Russians, Donald Trump Jr. and other Trump campaign officials. According to three sources, Corallo intends to tell investigators that Hicks told the president during the call that emails written by Trump Jr. prior to the meeting “will never get out,”and these allegations have been strongly denied by a lawyer for Hicks. Jo Becker, Mark Mazzetti, Matt Apuzzo and Maggie Haberman report at the New York Times.

Page said in an interview published yesterday that he had hoped the Justice Department and F.B.I. would have released the “illegitimate” application to surveil him under the Foreign Intelligence Security Act (F.I.S.A.) and he has not yet received a response to his requests for information, adding that the Nunes memo “seems to be the next best thing.” Tessa Stuart reports at the Rolling Stone magazine.

A breakdown of what is known about the memo and the F.I.S.A. application to surveil Page is provided by Philip Bump at the Washington Post.

The senior F.B.I. agent Peter Strzok, who was fired from Mueller’s team after showing apparent anti-Trump bias, supported reopening the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server and played a key role in drafting the letter former F.B.I. Director James Comey sent to Congress announcing the investigation. Manu Raju, Laura Jarrett and Jeremy Herb report at CNN.

The strong statement by Wray demonstrates a wider crisis of trust between the president and the intelligence agencies, Trump appears determined for the memo to be publicly available in the hope that it would help discredit Mueller’s investigation. Stephen Collinson provides an analysis at the CNN.

The F.B.I.’s public statement “appears intended to tarnish in advance whatever information the memo contains,” Congress and the White House should both push for greater transparency and release the memo as Americans deserve to know if the bureau “abused its power to influence a presidential election.” The Wall Street Journal editorial board writes.

NORTH KOREA

Trumps’ State of the Union speech and the withdrawal of the nomination of Victor Cha to be the U.S. ambassador to South Korea has increased fears among the South Korean government about the potential for the U.S. to carry out a limited, “bloody nose” pre-emptive strike against North Korea. Cha’s nomination was withdrawn after he raised concerns about taking such a measure, Anna Fifield reports at the Washington Post.

Trump administration advisers have clashed in their assessment of a “bloody nose” strike, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis have urged caution while others, such as national security adviser H.R. McMaster, have said the option should be seriously considered. Zachary Cohen, Nicole Gaouette, Barbara Starr and Kevin Liptak report at CNN.

“Our policy is very much for the peaceful resolution of the North Korea nuclear crisis,” the U.S. Special Representative for North Korea policy Joseph Yun said today, adding that all options are on the table but he does not believe that the U.S. is “close” to a military option. Linda Sieg reports at Reuters.

The U.S. conducted an unsuccessful missile test yesterday amid heightened tensions on the Korean Peninsula, the military launched a missile from an Aegis Ashore test site in Hawaii and it was intended to intercept an incoming dummy missile. Reuters reports.

A strike against North Korea could “easily spin out of control,” apprehension on the Korean Peninsula has increased with Trump’s comments, Cha’s withdrawal and an expected North Korean military parade on the eve of the forthcoming Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea. Ishaan Tharoor provides an analysis of the situation at the Washington Post.

SYRIA

Clashes between the Syrian Kurds and Turkey have continued since the Turkish operation on the northern Syrian Afrin region began on Jan. 20 against the U.S.-backed Syrian Kurdish Y.P.G. militia – whom Ankara consider to be an extension of the outlawed Turkey-based separatist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (P.K.K.) – with the precious situation having the potential to push the Syrian war into another dangerous direction, especially if Turkey extends its operation where the U.S. has troops on the ground. Martin Chulov reports at the Guardian.

The Turkish operation on Afrin has led to civilian deaths, with the Y.P.G. militia retaliating to the Turkish offensive with occasional rocket fire at Turkish border towns. The AP reports.

“How can they [the U.S.] stand by and watch?” the senior Kurdish political Aldar Khalili said yesterday, reflecting calls for the U.S. to do more to rein in the assault by its N.A.T.O. ally on the Syrian Kurds and demonstrating concern among Kurds over their alliance with the U.S.. Sarah El Deeb reports at the AP.

If the Turkish offensive in Afrin becomes an “invasion operation” then this “becomes a real problem for us,” the French President Emmanuel Macron said in an interview published yesterday, however the Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim hit back, saying that France should know that Turkey “is not acting with an invasive mind.” Reuters reports.

Turkey’s “Kurdish problem” is the result of “decade of brutal suppression of its Kurdish population,” the current tension – including in Afrin – can be resolved through an agreement between the Turkish President Reçep Tayyip Erdoğan and the P.K.K. leader Abdullah Ocalan to an immediate ceasefire inside Turkey and Syria. Amberin Zaman writes at the New York Times.

Russia faces significant challenges in its pursuit of a political agreement for Syria, the Syrian peace talks held in the Russian coastal city of Sochi this week were an attempt to achieve their goals, but the reaction among the delegates and the ongoing violence in Syria suggests that Russia has the potential to get “bogged down in a protracted conflict.” Kathrin Hille writes at the Financial Times.

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]

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

The U.S. yesterday added the head of the Palestinian militant Hamas movement to its official terror blacklist and imposed sanctions on him, the State Department said Ismail Haniya had “close links with Hamas’ military wing,” and also designated three militant groups as terrorist entities. The BBC reports.

Hamas denounced the State Department decision, saying that it demonstrated the “full American bias in favor of the Israeli occupation” and that it would not deter them carrying out their duties “towards our people and defending them, and liberating our lands and holy sites.” Al Jazeera reports.

The U.N. yesterday disclosed that it was examining 206 companies doing business with Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank, a report of an initial review of 321 companies observed that “businesses play a central role in furthering the establishment, maintenance and expansion of Israeli settlements.” Israel’s ambassador to the U.N. denounced the as a “shameful act” and the U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley said in a statement that the “whole issue” was outside the mandate of the U.N.’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Nick Cumming-Bruce reports at the New York Times.

The initiatives to annex portions of the West Bank pursued by some in Israel’s Knesset would be a dangerous path to go down and would have serious implications for Israel’s security and U.S. interests in the Middle East. The former Director of Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency, Danny Yatom, and the former commanding general of Israel’s Armored Corps, Amnon Reshef, write at the New York Times.

IRAN

Russia’s ambassador the U.N. said yesterday that U.S. had not made the case for new action at the U.N. against Iran through its claims about Iranian military support for the Houthi rebels in Yemen. Edith M. Lederer reports at the AP.

France plans to set up an export initiative to allow trade to occur outside the reach of U.S. sanctions on Iran, Reuters reports.

RUSSIA

Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) have urged Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to raise the issue of Russian interference in Mexican elections upon Tillerson’s visit to Mexico later this week. Kylie Atwood reports at CBS News.

The head of the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service (S.V.R.) Sergei Naryshkin visited the U.S. last week despite U.S. sanctions against him and the fact that the U.S. intelligence community have said that the S.V.R. was behind Russia’s campaign of interference in the 2016 election. Amy Knight reports at The Daily Beast, providing an analysis of why Naryshkin may have visited and what this means for the Trump administration.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

Cuba’s Foreign Ministry delivered a note to the U.S. government yesterday calling on it “to cease its subversive, interventionist and illegal actions against Cuba,” referring to a Trump administration decision announced last week that it would set up a task force to promote “the free and unregulated flow of information” in Cuba. Sarah Marsh report at Reuters.

Democratic lawmakers yesterday called for answers from the Strava fitness app after the fitness tracker appeared to reveal the locations of secret U.S. military bases abroad. Harper Neidig reports at the Hill.

Turkish airstrikes hit 19 Kurdistan Workers’ Party (P.K.K.) target in northern Iraq, the Turkish military said today, adding that 49 militants belonging to the terrorist-designated group were killed. Reuters reports.

Trump signed an executive order on Tuesday to keep the detention facility at Guantánamo Bay open, however any attempt to refill the prison would be met with numerous obstacles. Charlie Savage explains at the New York Times.

Key U.S. ambassadorships across the world have been left vacant, Laura Koran, Joyce Tseng and Aaron Kessler report at CNN. 

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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