The Early Edition: February 2, 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

President Trump is expected to announce to Congress today that he has approved the release of a Republican-authored memo which relies on classified information to allege that the F.B.I. and Justice Department acted inappropriately when obtaining a warrant to surveil the former Trump campaign foreign policy adviser Carter Page, the memo also casts doubt on the early stages of the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election. Carol D. Leonnig, Josh Dawsey, Ellen Nakashima and Karoun Demirjian report at the Washington Post.

The memo drafted by House Intelligence Chairman Rep. Devin Nunes (Calif.) is controversial due to a number of reasons, including a public statement by the F.B.I. Director Christopher A. Wray earlier this week which expressed “grave concerns” about the accuracy of the memo and a contention by some, including the Democrats, that the memo is intended to attack the law enforcement agencies in order to undermine special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation. Kevin Liptak, Kaitlan Collins, Sara Murray and Dan Merica report at CNN.

“The top Leadership and Investigators of the F.B.I. and the Justice Department have politicized the sacred investigative process in favor of the Democrats and against Republics,” Trump said in a message posted on Twitter today, representatives of the F.B.I. and Justice Department could not be immediately reached for comment. Reuters reports.

Trump’s enthusiasm for the memo’s release contrasts with the advice of some of his top national security officials who have expressed concern about the lack of context for some of the claims made, and White House aides attempted yesterday to accommodate concerns raised by Wray and the Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats about the sensitive information contained in the document. Nicholas Fandos and Adam Goldman report at the New York Times.

Trump was unmoved by the pleas from the intelligence community about releasing the memo and there was “never any hesitation” about Trump providing his approval, according to one presidential adviser. Philip Rucker, Ashley Parker and Josh Dawsey report at the Washington Post.

The House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) yesterday defended the decision to release the memo, he denied that the memo was intended to undermine the Russia investigation and stated that it was the job of the legislative branch to “conduct oversight over the executive branch if abuses were made.” The BBC reports.

Top White House aides are concerned that Wray would resign if the memo is released and the White House has been exploring whether redactions can satisfy the F.B.I.’s concerns. Dana Bash, Jeff Zeleny and Evan Perez report at CNN.

While many Republicans have pushed for the memo to be released, others have expressed apprehension, including concerns about disclosing sensitive information. Jonathan Allen reports at NBC News.

Page was known to U.S. counterintelligence officials as far back as 2013, and his dealings with Russia started more than a decade before Trump ran for president. Rebecca Ballhaus and Byron Tau report at the Wall Street Journal.

Wray should be prepared to resign, former F.B.I. agents have warned, saying that Trump and the Republicans would undermine the integrity of the bureau if the memo is released. Spencer Ackerman reports at The Daily Beast.

An explanation of the controversy surrounding the Nunes memo and its relevance to the Russia investigation is provided by Alan Yuhas at the Guardian.

Three lawyers for the former Trump campaign aide Rick Gates abruptly withdrew from the case representing him, Gates has pleaded not guilty to charges filed by Mueller in October. Darren Samuelsohn reports at POLITICO.

In a battle between the F.B.I. and Trump, the F.B.I. would always win, Eugene Robinson writes at the Washington Post.

Nunes and his fellow Republicans have relied on deception and obfuscation to cobble together an incoherent theory to undermine the F.B.I. for partisan purposes, the New York Times editorial board writes.

The revelation earlier this week that the former spokesperson for Trump’s legal team Mark Corallo intends to tell Mueller about a call between the president and White House communications director Hope Hicks, after the June 2016 Trump Tower meeting between Russians and Trump campaign officials, has the potential to be a significant piece of evidence in the Russia investigation and whether Trump attempted to obstruct justice. Aaron Blake writes at the Washington Post.

NORTH KOREA

The White House has called on the Pentagon to draw up plans for military options against North Korea and has been frustrated by the Pentagon’s reluctance to do so, the tension comes amid debates about the use of a preventative, limited, “bloody nose” strike on North Korea. Mark Landler and Helene Cooper report at the New York Times.

The U.S. has been aggravating the situation on the Korean Peninsula by deploying nuclear-powered aircraft carriers and planning military exercises after the Winter Olympics in South Korea, the North Korean foreign minister Ri Yong Ho said in a letter to the U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres circulated yesterday. Edith M. Lederer reports at the AP.

The top U.S. general in South Korea Gen. Vincent Brooks and his predecessor retired Gen. James Thurman are scheduled to join Vice President Mike Pence as part of the official delegation to the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang. John Bowden reports at the Hill.

North Korea has been sending mixed messages about its participation in the Winter Olympics, the Pyongyang regime has continued to make aggressive comments about the Trump administration, but its tone toward South Korea has constantly shifted. Eric Talmadge explains at the AP.

The Trump administration should consider Israel’s experience with preemptive attack before considering a “bloody nose” strategy, David Ignatius writes at the Washington Post.

SYRIA

The U.S. accused the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad of carrying out chemical weapons attacks against its own people, the State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert referred to a suspected attack in the rebel-held enclave of Eastern Ghouta near the capital of Damascus yesterday in a message on Twitter, and added that Russia – which is a key backer of Assad – is “making the wrong choice by not exercising its unique influence.” Al Jazeera reports.

Our policy is zero tolerance of chemical weapons, so we reserve the right to use military force to prevent or deter the use of mass destruction,” a senior administration official said yesterday, and administration officials said that the preference is for a diplomatic solution, but military action remains an option. Dion Nissenbaum reports at the Wall Street Journal.

Trump administration officials said yesterday that they had seen activity suggesting ongoing production of chemical weapons, with one official saying that the Assad regime “clearly think they can get away with this if they keep it under a certain level.” Missy Ryan reports at the Washington Post.

A hospital in Syria’s Hama province was hit by an airstrike yesterday, it is not clear who carried out the strike, however Syria and Russia have been stepping up their campaign on rebel-held areas of the country. The BBC reports.

The diplomatic efforts to secure humanitarian aid to civilians have been “totally impotent” and the situation is “screaming for a ceasefire,” the Special Adviser to the U.N. Special envoy for Syria, Jan Egeland, said yesterday. The U.N. News Centre reporting.

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]

RUSSIA

“We vigorously defend America in these encounters and pull no punches – we never will,” the C.I.A. Director Mike Pompeo said yesterday, defending his meeting with the top Russian intelligence officials in the U.S. last week, however he did not mention the issue of sanctions against Russia and whether the meeting played any part in the Trump administration’s decision not to impose new measures. Elana Schor reports at POLITICO.

“U.S. special services have effectively continued ‘hunting’ for Russians around the world,” the Russian foreign ministry warned yesterday, adding that in these circumstances Russian citizens should weigh up the risks before traveling abroad. Reuters reports.

YEMEN

Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E. urged the Saudi-backed Yemeni government fighters and U.A.E. southern Yemeni secessionists to focus on fighting the Houthi rebels amid a standoff between the two groups in the city of Aden, which threatens to divide the Saudi-led coalition. Al Jazeera reports.

The U.S. military has conducted more than six times as many airstrikes in 2017 than in 2016, the Pentagon has also acknowledged that it has some presence on the ground. Courtney Kube, Robert Windrem and William M. Arkin report at NBC News.

GULF-ARAB DISPUTE

The Qatari foreign minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani said yesterday that Qatar is willing to participate in an upcoming summit between the U.S. and the Gulf Cooperation Council (G.C.C.), making the commit amid the ongoing diplomatic isolation of Qatar by a Saudi-led bloc, which began in June due to allegations by the bloc that Doha funds terrorism and has close ties to Iran. Al Jazeera reports.

Trump could solve the Gulf crisis by making phone calls to the participants, the Qatari deputy prime minister and defense minister Khalid bin Mohammed Al Attiyah said in an interview with Susan B. Glasser published in POLITICO Magazine yesterday.

AFGHANISTAN

Protestors rallied outside the Pakistani embassy in the Afghan capital of Kabul yesterday to demand that the Afghan government improve the security situation and that Pakistan halt its support for insurgents, the demonstrations coming after a series of recent deadly attacks in Kabul and across the country. Pamela Constable reports at the Washington Post.

An overview of the “best loss” scenarios for the U.S. in Afghanistan is provided by Max Fisher at the New York Times.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson yesterday raised the possibility of a military coup against the Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, saying that the U.S. did not advocate “regime change” but that it would be “easiest” if Maduro chose to step down and allow for a peaceful transition. Max Greenwood reports at the Hill.

The executive order signed by Trump earlier this week to keep the Guantánamo Bay prison open raises questions about its future status and the 41 detainees who remain at the detention facility. Felicia Schwartz and Gordon Lubold report at the Wall Street Journal.

Myanmar needs to allow an “independent and credible” investigation into alleged atrocities, the State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert said today, referring to reports of mass graves of ethnic Rohingya Muslims in the Rakhine state. The AP reports.

The Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas is scheduled to address the U.N. Security Council later this month about the Trump administration’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and the decision by Israel to expand settlement-building. Edith M. Lederer reports at the AP.

The third-highest-ranking State Department official Thomas Shannon announced his retirement yesterday, the announcement comes amid reports of a demoralized State Department, however Shannon said that his retirement was due to personal reasons. Carol Morello reports at the Washington Post.

The State Department is expected to announce an arms embargo against South Sudan today, according to sources. Lesley Wroughton reports at Reuters.

Tillerson has managed to keep his position despite many rumors of his departure, however it is too late for him to leave a positive legacy. Derek Chollet writes at Foreign Policy. 

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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