The Early Edition: March 21, 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.

RUSSIA

President Trump said yesterday that he had phoned the Russian President Vladimir Putin to congratulate him on his re-election, explaining that it was a “very good call” during which they discussed the situations in Ukraine and Syria and the threat posed by North Korea. Thomas Grove and Rebecca Ballhaus report at the Wall Street Journal.

Trump did not mention Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election during his call with Putin, he also said that he would “probably be meeting” the Russian president “in the not-too-distant future.” Mark Landler reports at the New York Times.

Trump congratulated Putin despite being told not to by his national security advisers and in his briefing materials, according to officials familiar with the call. Trump’s tone during the call has led to criticism, especially in light of the recent nerve agent attack on the former Russian spy Sergei Skripal in the U.K. and the ongoing investigations into Russia election interference, Carol D. Leonnig, David Nakamura and Josh Dawsey report at the Washington Post.

Trump said yesterday that he wanted a summit with Putin to discuss the arms race between the two countries, Katrina Manson and Kathrin Hille report at the Financial Times.

The White House has no specific plans for a meeting between Trump and Putin, the press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said yesterday. Reuters reports.

CYBERSECURITY, PRIVACY AND TECHNOLOGY

Facebook’s approach to data allowed the Cambridge Analytica firm to harvest the information of 50 million users in order to promote political campaigns, the revelations about the firm have prompted the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (F.T.C.) and Canada’s privacy commissioner to investigate the social media giant. Deepa Seetharaman and Kirsten Grind report at the Wall Street Journal.

The C.E.O. of Cambridge Analytica, Alexander Nix, was suspended from his role yesterday due to the scandal surrounding the firm, which includes reports of data harvesting from Facebook and recordings suggesting that the company used subterfuge and entrapment to further political campaigns. Matthew Rosenberg reports at the New York Times.

Trump’s former adviser Steve Bannon oversaw Cambridge Analytica’s efforts in 2014 to harvest user data information from Facebook, according to a former employee of the firm, who claimed that Bannon pushed messages that emerged as key themes in Trump’s campaign speeches during the 2016 election. Craig Timberg, Karla Adam and Michael Kranish report at the Washington Post.

The academic Dr. Aleksandr Kogan has said he has been made “a scapegoat” in the scandal surrounding Facebook and Cambridge Analytica, Kogan developed a personality survey which was used to collect data from Facebook users. The BBC reports.

Undercover recordings showed Nix and other senior executives boasting about their role in getting Trump elected, an investigation by the U.K.-based Channel 4 News suggests that work was divided between official Trump campaigns and unaffiliated “political action groups,” which would potentially fall foul of U.S. election law. Emma Graham-Harrison and Carole Cadwalladr report at the Guardian.

Several U.S. lawmakers have called on Facebook’s C.E.O. Mark Zuckerberg and the chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg to appear before Congress to answer questions about user data. Ashley Gold and Nancy Scola report at POLITICO.

Cambridge Analytica’s role may or may not have been as extensive or important as its executives claimed in undercover recordings, nevertheless the revelations raise important questions that have yet to be answered. Philip Bump writes at the Washington Post.

Cambridge Analytica worked on election campaigns across the world, Adam Taylor explains at the Washington Post.

TRUMP-RUSSIA

“The special counsel [Robert Mueller] should be free to follow through his investigation without interference,” the House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) told reporters yesterday, referring to Mueller’s investigation into Russia meddling in the 2016 U.S. election and making the comments after Trump attacked the investigation. Ryan was joined by the Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) in defending Mueller’s probe, Byron Tau and Peter Nicholas report at the Wall Street Journal.

“To pretend like going through this absurd process over a year would not bring frustration seems a little ridiculous,” the White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said of Mueller’s investigation yesterday, emphasizing that the White House has no intention to fire Mueller but explaining that the drawn-out nature of the probe was the cause for the president’s recent Twitter outbursts attacking the special counsel. Jonathan Easley reports at the Hill.

The Senate Intelligence Committee yesterday made recommendations on protecting U.S. elections from foreign interference, the recommendations were made on a bipartisan basis and suggest a number of measures, including legislation to grant states money to improve election security. Tim Starks, Cory Bennett and Martin Matishak report at POLITICO.

Would firing Mueller lead to a constitutional crisis? POLITICO Magazine provides the perspectives of ten analysts.

SYRIA

The Israeli military today formally confirmed that it destroyed a suspected Syrian nuclear reactor in 2007 in the Deir al-Zour region, with the Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman saying that “everyone in the Middle East would do well to internalize this equation,” referring to the might of the Israeli Defense Forces. Aron Heller reports at the AP.

The revelation of the 2007 strike sends a message to Iran that “Israel will never allow nuclear weaponry to be in the hands of those who threaten its existence,” the Israeli Intelligence Minister Israel Katz said today. Reuters reporting.

At least 35 people have been killed by rebel attacks on a district of the Syrian capital of Damascus, the attack yesterday came amid the pro-Syrian government offensive on the rebel Damascus enclave of Eastern Ghouta. The AFP reports.

An airstrike on Eastern Ghouta yesterday reportedly killed 15 children and two women sheltering in a school, according to the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which said 50 others were wounded. The BBC reports.

Russia has reached a deal to evacuate fighters from the Ahrar al-Sham rebel group from a town in Eastern Ghouta, the Russian defense ministry said today. Suleiman Al-Khalidi reports at Reuters.

There has been a build-up of pro-Syrian government forces in Deir al-Zour near where U.S. troops are present, according to U.S. and coalition officials. Ryan Browne and Barbara Starr report at CNN.

A feature on the Israeli strike on the nuclear reactor, and what the raid can teach the U.S. about dealing with the threat posed by Iran or North Korea, is provided by Yossi Melman and Dan Raviv at POLITICO Magazine.

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]

The KOREAN PENINSULA

The South Korean President Moon Jae-in today raised the possibility of three-way talks with President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, Ben Westcott and Sophie Jeong report at CNN.

Moon and Kim are planning an inter-Korean summit next month, which is expected to be followed by a Trump-Kim meeting. Moon said that a “three-way summit” could take place depending on progress and the location of the meeting, Choe Sang-Hun reports at the New York Times.

“We do like to remind that it is time for all to approach everything with prudence, with self-control and patience,” the North Korean state K.C.N.A. news agency said in commentary published today, saying that there is a “dramatic atmosphere for reconciliation” between the two Koreas and a “sign of change” in North Korea-U.S. relations. Anna Fifield reports at the Washington Post.

The K.C.N.A. commentary also said that it was motivated by “self-confidence” to reach out to South Korea and the U.S., and not sanctions against Pyongyang. The BBC reports.

Speculation has been rife over the location of a Trump-Kim summit, Eric Talmadge explains at the AP.

SAUDI ARABIA

The Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was hosted by President Trump at the White House yesterday, discussions included discussion of arms deals and commercial relations. In separate meetings on Capitol Hill, the Crown Prince met with national security advisers and congressional leaders to discuss U.S.-Saudi relations, the U.S. role supporting the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen’s civil war and counterterrorism efforts, Karen DeYoung and Steven Mufson report at the Washington Post.

The Senate yesterday voted 55-44 against a resolution ending U.S. support for the Saudi-led campaign in Yemen, Lauren Gambino and Patrick Wintour report at the Guardian.

Yemen’s minister of state yesterday announced his resignation, the minister, Salah al-Sayadi, recently claimed that the Yemeni President Abdrabbu Mansour Hadi was under house arrest in the Saudi capital of Riyadh and said that he would explain his resignation “later.” Al Jazeera reports.

The warms relations between U.S. and Saudi Arabia cannot hide the horrors taking place in Yemen, Saudi Arabia deserves to be “singled out for particular criticism” because it has led the coalition’s bombing campaign, which has caused untold civilian suffering. Ishaan Tharoor provides an analysis at the Washington Post.

IRAQ

At least 19,000 people accused of connections to the Islamic State group or other militant activities have been incarcerated or imprisoned in Iraq, Qassim Abdul-Zahra and Susannah George reveal at the AP.

The 39 Indian construction workers kidnapped by the Islamic State group in Iraq in 2014 have all been confirmed dead by the Indian Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj. The BBC reports.

Turkish airstrikes killed at least 12 Kurdistan Workers’ Party (P.K.K.) militants in northern Iraq, the Turkish military said today. Reuters reports.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

At least 29 people have been killed today in a suicide bomb attack in the Afghan capital of Kabul, according to officials, with the Islamic State group claiming responsibility for the attack. Hamid Shalizi and Sayed Hassib report at Reuters.

Tensions between China and the Philippines in the South China Sea appear to have eased in light of talks scheduled between the countries’ foreign ministers today, the AP reports. 

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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