The Early Edition: March 20, 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.

CYBERSECURITY, PRIVACY AND TECHNOLOGY

Executives from the data research firm Cambridge Analytica have been caught on camera discussing ways to promote political campaigns via subterfuge and entrapment, according to an investigation by the U.K.-based Channel 4 News. The firm has been in the news after it was revealed that it had harvested data from more than 50 million Facebook profiles, Matthew Rosenberg reports at the New York Times.

The U.K.’s Information Commissioner has sought a warrant to inspect Cambridge Analytica, the firm used the data harvested from Facebook to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election and other political campaigns, however the C.E.O. of the company, Alexander Nix, has denied any wrongdoing and claimed that the Channel 4 News report “grossly misrepresented” the conversations that were caught on camera. The BBC reports.

Officials in the U.S. and Europe have called for investigations into Facebook as a result of the Cambridge Analytica revelations. Byron Tau and Deepa Seetharaman report at the Wall Street Journal.

Rep. Mike Conaway (R-Texas) said yesterday that he does not intend to ask Nix to give evidence before the House Intelligence Committee, Rep. Conaway is leading the panel’s Russia investigation and there have been previous reports that Nix tried to contact WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange about Hillary Clinton’s missing emails and had business links with Russian interests. Olivia Beavers reports at the Hill.

Cambridge Analytica is not the only firm to use Facebook user data, the company has been under the spotlight because it broke Facebook’s rules, however experts have said that there is the broader issue of a generally lax regime that governs access to user information. Elizabeth Dwoskin and Tony Romm report at the Washington Post.

An explanation of the scandal surrounding Cambridge Analytica, its connections to the 2016 Trump presidential campaign and the role of Facebook is provided by Hilary Osborne at the Guardian.

Facebook knew of Cambridge Analytica’s data harvesting two years ago but did not take action until last week, the investigations in the U.S. and U.K. should also look into Facebook’s response as it is clear that “lawmakers cannot rely on the company to police itself.” The New York Times editorial board writes.

TRUMP-RUSSIA

The former U.S. attorney Joseph diGenova has joined President Trump’s personal legal team to help represent him in special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation. DiGenova has issued strong criticisms of law enforcement agencies in recent months and said that the F.B.I. had been “weaponized for political purposes,” Rebecca Ballhaus and Peter Nicholas report at the Wall Street Journal.

Trump is considering making further changes to his legal team, according to two sources familiar with the matter, signaling that the president is taking a more aggressive line against the Russia investigation and Mueller himself. Michael S. Schmidt and Maggie Haberman report at the New York Times.

Trump’s legal team sat down with Mueller’s team last week to discuss the topics that investigators could discuss with the president, according to two sources familiar with the matter. The discussions are likely to include the circumstances surrounding the firing of former F.B.I. Director James Comey and what the president knew about the former national security adviser Michael Flynn’s conversations with the former Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak in December 2016, Pamela Brown, Gloria Borger and Katelyn Polantz report at CNN.

Trump’s legal team have shared materials with Mueller’s team that detail key moments under investigation in an attempt to limit the discussions between the president and Mueller at a potential interview. Carol D. Leonnig reports at the Washington Post.

Senate Republicans remain skeptical about the need to pass legislation to protect Mueller, calls for legislation have increased since the president launched a tirade of tweets attacking Mueller at the weekend, which have led to growing speculation that he intends to fire the special counsel. Jordain Carney reports at the Hill.

Republicans must pass a bill to protect Mueller and “should not remain complicit” in the debasement of politics and government, the Washington Post editorial board writes.

SYRIA

 “The United States is deeply concerned over reports from Afrin city over the last 48 hours,” the State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert said in a statement yesterday, noting reports that Turkish forces have seized the city in northern Syria from the U.S.-supported Syrian Kurdish Y.P.G. militia. The Turkish campaign was carried out despite the fact that Turkey is a N.A.T.O. ally of the U.S., but Ankara considers the Y.P.G. to be an extension of the outlawed Turkey-based Kurdistan Workers’ Party (P.K.K.), Rebecca Kheel reports at the Hill.

Turkey will extend its Afrin operation along the length of the Syria-Turkey border and continue their campaign against the Y.P.G., the Turkish President Reçep Tayyip Erdogan said yesterday, the Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said that there was a potential for the operation to stretch into northern Iraq. Ece Toksabay and Mehmet Emin Caliskan report at Reuters.

The Syrian President Bashar al-Assad drove into the rebel enclave of Eastern Ghouta near the capital Damascus yesterday, a video of his travel and his meetings with Syrian armed forces was shared online by his office, offering an alternative and propagandized version of the conflict engulfing the country. Ben Hubbard reports at the New York Times.

A letter signed by eight U.N. Security Council nations and circulated to the Council yesterday has expressed “profound concern” about the lack of implementation of the Feb. 24 resolution calling for an immediate 30-day Syria-wide ceasefire, saying that it is “imperative” that the Council “immediately pursue decisive action” to implement the resolution. The AP reports.

The Syrian government siege of Eastern Ghouta has involved “pervasive war crimes” perpetuated on the pretext of a “struggle against terrorism,” the U.N. High Commission for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein told an informal meeting of the Security Council yesterday. Edith M. Lederer reports at the AP.

Russia’s defense ministry has said today that 79,702 civilians have been evacuated from Eastern Ghouta since the start of a humanitarian operation, Reuters reports.

The Islamic State group have taken control of a small district in Damascus, Reuters reports.

“The truth is that a soft, long-term partition of Syria, which [is] the one that we are witnessing at the moment … will be a catastrophe, not only for Syria but for the whole region,” the U.N. Special Envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, warned yesterday, adding that he believed that Syria must “remain unified.” Stephanie Nebehay and Tom Miles report at Reuters.

The defeat of the Y.P.G. in Afrin city represents a significant blow to the America’s Syria policy, U.S. calls for Turkey to de-escalate tensions went unheeded and the Kurds in Afrin found that they were without support despite having been a key U.S. partner in the fight against the Islamic State group. Ishaan Tharoor provides an analysis at the Washington Post.

U.S.-led airstrikes continue. U.S. and coalition forces carried out 23 airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria and Iraq between March 9 and March 15. [Central Command]

SAUDI ARABIA

Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman will be hosted by President Trump and other top administration officials at the White House today, the visit comes amid a harder line taken by the U.S. and Saudi Arabia against Iran and the 2015 nuclear deal, and a threat that Saudi Arabia would acquire a nuclear bomb if Iran develops one. Vivian Salama reports at NBC News.

The Senate may vote today on ending U.S. military involvement in the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, however it is not yet clear whether there would be enough votes to support the resolution. Jordain Carney reports at the Hill.

“Our view of the [Iran] nuclear deal is that it’s a flawed agreement,” the Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir said in Washington yesterday, ahead of the meeting between Trump and the Crown Prince. Yara Bayoumy reports at Reuters.

The U.S. and Saudi Arabia have plenty of policy disagreements despite relations being at an “all-time high,” such as on U.S. investment, the approach toward Qatar, differences over Saudi-Russia relations, and ongoing arguments in Congress over U.S. support for the Yemen campaign. Karen DeYoung explains at the Washington Post.

The Senate would be enabling Iran if it votes to stop U.S. cooperation with Saudi Arabia in Yemen, passing the resolution would aid Iranian proxies in the country and would also “needlessly insult” the Saudi Crown Prince. The Wall Street Journal editorial board writes.

The war in Yemen has caused largescale destruction and civilian suffering, the Senate resolution provides an opportunity to increase accountability of the conflict itself and the legislative basis for U.S. involvement. The New York Times editorial board writes.

The Saudi Crown Prince and the president’s son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner have a close friendship, the relationship began last year and they have bonded over common goals. Carol D. Leonnig, Shane Harris, Josh Dawsey and Greg Jaffe explain at the Washington Post.

The KOREAN PENINSULA

Joint U.S.-South Korea military exercises will begin on April 1, the Pentagon announced yesterday. The two countries agreed to delay the exercises due to North Korea’s outreach during the Winter Olympics in South Korea, Helene Cooper and Choe Sang-Hun report at the New York Times.

The drills will be “at a scale similar” to that of previous years, a Pentagon statement said, adding that North Korea has been notified of the schedule and the “defensive nature” of the exercises. The AP reports.

Meetings between North Korea, South Korean and U.S. delegations in Finland will not include discussions of denuclearization, the Finnish Foreign Minister Timo Soini said today. Reuters reports.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

The Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas yesterday called the U.S. envoy to Israel, David Friedman, a “son of a dog,” saying that Friedman was a “settler” and his family “are settlers,” referring to Friedman’s strong support for West Bank settlements. Rory Jones and Dov Lieber report at the Wall Street Journal, explaining how the insults reflect the difficulties that a U.S. Middle East peace plan is likely to face once it is unveiled.

“Is that anti-Semitism or political discourse? I leave that up to you,” Friedman said yesterday at a conference, responding to Abbas’s comments. Julia Manchester reports at the Hill.

Abbas yesterday accused Hamas of targeting the convoy of Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah with a bomb as it was entering the Gaza Strip. Al Jazeera reports.

A French consulate employee has been arrested by Israeli authorities for allegedly smuggling arms from the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip in a diplomatic vehicle. Tia Goldenberg reports at the AP.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

A report on the ambush of U.S. Special Forces soldiers in Niger last year has revealed that the mission was not approved by senior military officials and the leader of the team warned that his troops did not have the appropriate equipment or intelligence to carry out their mission. Helene Cooper, Thomas Gibbons-Neff and Eric Schmitt report at the New York Times.

The transfer of the Saudi citizen Ahmed Muhammed Haza al-Darbi from Guantánamo Bay has been advanced by the U.S., the U.S. military said yesterday. Phil Stewart and Idrees Ali report at Reuters.

Pakistan is still considering whether to accept an invitation by the Afghan President Ashraf Ghani for their Prime Minister to visit Kabul, there have been significant tensions between the two countries, especially in relation to the Taliban and their respective relations with India. Zarar Khan and Amir Shah report at the AP. 

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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