The Early Edition: August 3, 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.

RUSSIAN ELECTION INTERFERENCE

Senior intelligence officials have characterized ongoing Russian attempts to interfere in the 2018 midterm elections as extensive and genuine, despite President Trump’s repeated dismissal of the threat. Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats told reporters at a briefing yesterday that “we continue to see a pervasive messaging campaign by Russia to try to weaken and divide the U.S.,” Rebecca Ballhaus and Dustin Volz report at the Wall Street Journal.

Top aides including Coats and national security adviser John Bolton stressed at the briefing that a significant effort is underway to protect the integrity of midterm elections in November and the 2020 presidential election. “We acknowledge the threat, it is real, it is continuing, and we’re doing everything we can to have a legitimate election,” Coats said, adding: “It is pervasive, it is ongoing, with the intent to … drive a wedge and undermine our democratic values,” Reuters reports.

F.B.I. Director Christopher A. Wray described the Russian interference as a “24-7, 365-days-a-year” effort, adding “Russia attempted to interfere with the last election…and continues to engage in malign influence operations to this day. This is a threat we need to take extremely seriously and to tackle and respond to with fierce determination and focus,” Michael D. Shear and Michael Wines report at the New York Times.

“President Putin said the first issue that President Trump raised was election meddling,” Bolton told reporters when asked whether Trump had adequately challenged Russian President Vladimir Putin on the matter at their bilateral summit in Finland last month. Trump was strongly criticized last month for not condemning alleged Russian actions while in Helsinki, the BBC reports.

The briefing came hours after a group of bipartisan senators including Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) introduced legislation attempting to reorganize U.S. government defenses to respond to future cyber threats, and to reduce the risk of Trump withdrawing from the N.A.T.O alliance.  Graham said yesterday that the goal of the new  “Defending American Security from Kremlin Aggression Act of 2018” was to “impose crushing sanctions and other measures against Putin’s Russia until he ceases and desists meddling in the US electoral process,” Sam Fleming reports at the Financial Times.

The proposed legislation marks of the most significant effort to date by Congress to shape foreign policy and has Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz) and three prominent Democrats among its supporters. Whether it could actually become law, however, is another question – with the House’s month-long recess, a booked legislative agenda for the fall and the impending midterm elections serving as potential roadblocks, Nicholas Fandos reports at the New York Times.

“President Trump has not and will not tolerate interference in America’s system of representative government,” Bolton wrote in a letter to Senate Democrats, responding to concerns expressed by lawmakers Wednesday following a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing. Brett Neely reports at NPR.

“Our letter to Ambassador Bolton urged him and the Trump administration to fully implement the sanctions on Russia that Congress already passed, extradite the 12 Russian government officials indicted by Special Counsel Mueller, and commit to protecting diplomats and other U.S. personnel — both past and present,” Senate Minority leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and other senators commented in a statement yesterday, adding that “ambassador Bolton’s response does not address any of this and failed to urge Republicans in the Senate to reconsider their position blocking critical funding requested by 21 states to bolster election security ahead of the midterms.” Andrew Restuccia reports at POLITICO.

“In Helsinki, I had a great meeting with Putin,” Trump told supporters at a rally in Wilkes-Barre just hours after the national intelligence briefing, adding “we discussed everything — I had a great meeting. We got along really well. By the way, that’s a good thing, not a bad thing. That’s a really good thing. Now we’re being hindered by the Russian hoax. It’s a hoax, OK? I’ll tell you what, Russia’s very unhappy that Trump won, that I can tell you.” Jonathan Allen and Lauren Egan report at NBC.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov will meet U.S. Senator Rand Paul in Moscow on Aug. 6, the senator’s office said yesterday. Rand has served as an advocate for diplomacy with Russia amid tense relations, and like Trump has previously expressed skepticism about the assessment of U.S. intelligence agencies regarding Russian electoral interference, Reuters reports.

As the midterms approach, Trump is failing to take seriously the threat of cyberattacks on the electoral system, the New York Times editorial board comments.

An explainer of why the Russian threat is pervasive, how ballots are being secured and what intelligence agencies are (and should be) doing is provided by Michael Wines and Julian E. Barnes at the New York Times.

A side-by-side comparison of the statements made by intelligence agencies and those made by the President regarding attempted Russian inference is provided by Karen Yourish and Troy Griggs at the New York Times.

An analysis of the techniques used by interference groups to influence voters using Facebook is provided by Kate Conger and Charlie Savage at the New York Times.

TRUMP-RUSSIA

President Trump and his legal team are likely to decide whether to grant special counsel Robert Mueller an interview with the president within a “week to 10 days,” Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani said yesterday. Mueller is investigating Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, Kyle Cheney reports at POLITICO.

Accused Russian agent Maria Butina’s unsubtle efforts to make inroads with the Trump campaign and other conservative political groups “go hand-in-hand with Moscow’s more coordinated efforts to hack the Democrats, spread disinformation on social media, sow division and try to sway voters in favor of Trump,” Sara Murray explains at CNN.

SYRIA

Israel yesterday launched an attack on seven Islamic State group militants who entered the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights from Syria. The Israeli Defense Forces (I.D.F.) said the militants were fleeing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces, who have launched an offensive in the southwest to regain control of territory along the Syria-Israel border, Yaniv Kubovich reports at Haaretz.

There are a lot of Islamic State militants “scattered in the area” due to the Syrian government offensive, the I.D.F. spokesperson Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus explained. Erin Cunningham reports at the Washington Post.

Jordan’s military said yesterday that it had killed several Islamic State group fighters who had come close to its side of the Yarmouk region basin in fighting that began on Tuesday and continued for nearly 20 hours. A Jordanian military source said the militants were chased by Syrian army units conducting operations in the southwest of the country, Al Jazeera reports.

U.N. peacekeepers yesterday returned to the de-militarized zone between Syria and the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights and are conducting joint patrols with Russian military police, Col. Gen. Sergei Rudskoy of the Russian General Staff said yesterday. Sarah El Deeb and Maria Danilova report at the AP.

“From our perspective, the situation is returning to how it was before the civil war, meaning there is a real address, someone responsible, and central rule,” the Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman said yesterday, expressing his view that Assad winning the war is a given and preserving calm in the Golan Heights would be in Israel and Assad’s interest. Dan Williams and Suleiman Al-Khalidi report at Reuters.

Jordan’s Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi said yesterday that his country would only reopen its border with Syria when it can ensure its interests and security, potentially delaying a move that would boost Assad and his Russian backers. Suleiman Al-Khalidi reports at Reuters.

A report released by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (O.P.C.W.) has identified discrepancies and gaps in Syria’s declaration of its chemical weapons. Edith M. Lederer reports at the AP.

U.S.-led airstrikes continue. U.S. and coalition forces carried out nine airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria and Iraq between July 23 and July 29. [Central Command]

YEMEN

Saudi-led coalition airstrikes on the Houthi rebel-held Yemeni port city of Hodeidah killed at least 28 people and wounded 70 yesterday, according to medical officials. Ahmed Al-Haj reports at the AP.

The Houthi-run health ministry said that at least 55 had been killed and 124 wounded, including women and children, in an attack that targeted a Hodeidah hospital and a busy fishing port. Al Jazeera reports.

“[The] coalition did not carry out any operations in Hodeidah today,” the coalition spokesperson Col. Turki al-Malki told Al-Arabiya television, adding “the Houthi militia are behind killing of civilians in Hodiedah on Thursday. The coalition follows a strict and transparent approach based on international law.” Reuters reports.

The U.N. special envoy for Yemen, Martin Griffiths, invited the warring Yemeni parties to Geneva for a round of talks on Sept. 6, making the announcement at the U.N. Security Council yesterday, calling for a resumption of the political process and saying consultations would provide the opportunity “to discuss the framework for negotiations, relevant confidence-building measures and specific plans for moving the process forward.” The U.N. News Centre reports.

“I am concerned that Hodeidah could be a flashpoint,” Griffiths said yesterday. The U.N. envoy has been leading efforts to prevent a full-scale coalition assault on the strategic port city, which is a key entry point for food and supplies, Edith M. Lederer reports at the AP.

Griffiths’ announcement came hours after the coalition was accused of carrying out airstrikes in Hodeidah. Patrick Wintour reports at the Guardian.

The Yemeni conflict has reached “a new sense of urgency,” the U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley said yesterday at the Security Council session, condemning Iran for backing the Houthis and stating: “we as the international community have to demand that the two parties come together and understand the seriousness of this.” Farnaz Fassihi reports at the Wall Street Journal.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

Egypt has proposed a ceasefire deal between Israel and the Palestinian Hamas militant group who run the Gaza Strip, according to senior Hamas officials, who said yesterday that the outline of the deal would pave the way for U.N.-led rebuilding of Gaza and prisoner swaps. Mohammed Daraghmeh reports at the AP.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has canceled his trip to South America to keep an eye on developments in the Gaza Strip, the announcement coming amid reported progress on an Egypt-brokered ceasefire deal. Noa Landau reports at Haaretz.

IRAN

Iran began a major naval exercise near the Strait of Hormuz yesterday, according to U.S. defense officials, in an apparent response to statements from President Trump in recent days indicating that he would ratchet up pressure against Tehran. The U.S. believes the exercises “fully started” yesterday and could continue until Aug. 6., with one official commenting that there are more than 100 boats and ships participating in the exercise, although most are considered smaller craft, Gordon Lubold and Nancy A. Youssef report at the Wall Street Journal.

Although Iran has not publicized the exercise widely, the U.S. military is concerned that it could demonstrate Tehran’s ability to interfere with commercial shipping and shut down the Strait of Hormuz which serves a crucial conduit for global energy supplies, Barbara Starr reports at CNN.

“We are monitoring it closely, and will continue to work with our partners to ensure freedom of navigation and free flow of commerce in international waterways,” commented chief spokesman of Central Command, Navy Capt. Bill Urban. Reuters reports

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said today that China was “pivotal” to salvaging the 2015 Iran nuclear deal following the President Trump’s decision to withdraw earlier this year. Reuters reports.

U.S.-TURKEY RELATIONS

Turkey has said U.S. sanctions imposed over its detention of American Pastor Andrew Brunson are unacceptable and will have a limited impact on the Turkish economy. Reuters reports.

“The Turks were on notice that the clock had run and it was time for Pastor Brunson to be returned and I’ll hope they’ll see this for what it is, a demonstration that we’re very serious,” the U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said today of the sanctions, making the comments ahead of talks with his Turkish counterpart Mevlut Cavusoglu in Singapore. The AFP reports.

Pompeo and Cavusoglu agreed today to work together to resolve a series of issues that have undermined the U.S.-Turkey relationship. David Brunnstrom reports at Reuters.

AFGHANISTAN

The Taliban attacked a police outpost in northern Balkh province Wednesday night, killing three local policemen and wounding four others according to the province’s chief police spokesman. He added that at least 10 Taliban fighters were also killed in the ensuing gun battle, though the Taliban are yet to comment, the AP reports.

A suicide bomb attack near a Shi’ite mosque killed at least 10 people during today’s prayers in the eastern city of Gardez, according to health officials and police, who added that they were attempting to enter the mosque premises to help at least nine wounded people. No militant group has claimed responsibility for the explosion, Reuters reports.

The reasons for the surrender of 200 Islamic State group fighters in the north of the country earlier this week remain unclear. A Taliban spokesman credited the Taliban for cleansing the region of fighters belonging to the Islamic State group in Khorasan (I.S-K.) citing the fact that the Taliban have killed 153 and captured 134 I.S.-K. fighters; the Afghan Ministry of Defense, however, claimed that the fighters surrendered because of an Afghan army onslaught, Nick Paton Walsh and Ehsan Popalza explain at CNN.

Retired Army Col. Chris Kolenda and ex-U.S. ambassador Robin Raphel have conducted months of quiet diplomacy with the Taliban that could contribute towards a negotiated close for the U.S.’ war in Afghanistan, Spencer Ackerman explains at The Daily Beast.

The KOREAN PENINSULA

There is “still a ways to go” [sic.] before the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula can be achieved, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told reporters today. Matthew Lee reports at the AP.

More than 10,000 new North Korean workers have been registered in Russia since the U.N. Security Council issued sanctions aimed at cutting cash flows to Pyongyang. Ian Talley and Anatoly Kurmanaev reveal at the Wall Street Journal.

President Trump received a letter from North Korean leader Kim Jong-un on Wednesday, the White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said yesterday, clarifying the comments by Trump on Twitter thanking Kim for his letter and saying he looked forward to another meeting. Reuters reports.

The increasingly warm personal relationship between Trump and Kim has not been matched by major diplomatic progress, with some former officials saying that efforts to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula following the Trump-Kim summit in June are being hindered by mismatched expectations about the sequence of diplomatic moves needed to establish new relations. Michael R. Gordon, Michael C. Bender and Jonathan Cheng explain at the Wall Street Journal.

A.S.E.A.N.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo began a tour of Southeast Asia yesterday and is scheduled to attend the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (A.S.E.A.N.) summit in Singapore, where senior North Korea and Iran are also expected to be present. Jessica Donati reports at the Wall Street Journal.

Pompeo has been seeking support among A.S.E.A.N. nations for the Trump administration’s approach to North Korea and Iran’s nuclear programs, and has been seeking support for efforts to push back against China’s increasing influence in the region. Stefania Palma reports at the Financial Times.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

The bookkeeper of former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort –Heather Washkuhn – testified at Manafort’s trial yesterday, telling the court that Manafort and an associate made use of documents that inaccurately inflated their firm’s income to obtain bank loans, an allegation that forms a central plank of the prosecution’s case. Manafort’s trial is the first to arise from special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation, although none of the charges in Manafort’s tax- and bank- fraud trial are directly related to Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, Aruna Viswanatha and Del Quentin Wilber report at the Wall Street Journal.

President Trump’s attacks on the media “run counter to the country’s obligations to respect press freedom and international human rights law,” two experts appointed by the U.N. Human Rights Council and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights warned yesterday. The AP reports.

The outgoing U.N. high commissioner for human rights Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein defended his outspoken criticisms of governments across the world in a farewell news conference yesterday, saying: “I have no regrets that I’ve said what I said. I think I’ve tried my best and I hope others will see that at certain times the U.N. needs to speak.” Edith M. Lederer reports at the AP.

The Russian navy will get a total of 26 new ships in 2018, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced this week. The announcement sees the Russian navy increasing its fleet at a faster rate than the U.S. and China, with Putin apparently “preparing for a naval war…but the kind of war Putin is preparing for might not be the same kind of war the United States expects,” David Axe explains at The Daily Beast.

Despite President Trump’s claims following June’s G-7 summit that he had instructed officials not to endorse the summit communiqué, those instructions from Trump have never been acted upon according to two sources directly involved in the G-7 process. Alberto Nardelli reports at Buzzfeed News.

An interview with former al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden’s mother is provided by Martin Chulov at the Guardian. 

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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

Robbie Stern

Assistant News Editor at Just Security and Legal Researcher at JUSTICE, a law reform and human rights organization based in the UK - Follow him on Twitter (@robbieguystern).