The Early Edition: August 16, 2018

Signup to receive the Early Edition in your inbox here.

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.

BRENNAN CLEARANCE REVOKED

President Trump yesterday followed through on his threats to strip the security clearance of former C.I.A. Director John Brennan. White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders announced the decision at a briefing, reading a statement in which the president accused Brennan of making “a series of unfounded and outrageous allegations — wild outbursts on the internet and television — about this Administration.” David Nakamura and Felicia Sonmez report at the Washington Post.

Brennan’s “lying and recent conduct, characterized by increasingly frenzied commentary, is wholly inconsistent with access to the nation’s most closely held secrets,” Sanders added. Ben Jacobs reports at the Guardian.

The statement comes just a few weeks after Sanders warned that Trump was considering revoking the clearances of Brennan and others who he believed had politicized and inappropriately benefitted from their access to delicate information. The move marks the latest attack against a top national security official by the president, following the firing of former F.B.I Director James B. Comey, former F.B.I Deputy Director Andrew G. McCabe and former F.B.I. counterintelligence agent Peter Strzok. Julie Hirschfeld Davis and Michael D. Shear report at the New York Times.

Sanders added that the president is reviewing the clearance status of a series of intelligence, national security and law enforcement officials, all of whom have been critical of Trump or were engaged in investigating possible links between the Trump campaign and Russia. The officials include: Comey; McCabe; Strzok; former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper; former Director of the National Security Agency Michael Hayden; former acting Attorney General Sally Yates; former national security adviser Susan Rice; former F.B.I. lawyer Lisa Page; and current Department of Justice official Bruce Ohr. Jonathan Allen reports at NBC.

Brennan has been a vocal critic of Trump: earlier this year, he claimed that Trump’s performance at his July summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin had been “nothing short of treasonous,” while last year he described the investigation into possible collusion between Trump campaign officials and Russia during the 2016 presidential elections as “well-founded.” The BBC reports

Sanders denied that Trump was punishing Brennan for his criticisms of the president, answering “not at all” in response to a reporter’s question. Brett Samuels and Morgan Chalfant report at the Hill.

“I call it the rigged witch hunt, [it] is a sham… And these people led it!” Trump said in an interview yesterday, drawing a direct connection between special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election and his decision to revoke Brennan’s security clearance. Peter Nicholas and Michael C. Bender report at the Wall Street Journal.

Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats was reportedly not consulted ahead of the decision to revoke former Brennan’s clearance. CNN reports.

Brennan slated Trump’s decision as an “abuse of power,” during an interview on MSNBC in which he expressed his belief that “Trump decided to take this action, as he’s done with others, to try to intimidate and suppress any criticism of him or his administration.” Although Brennan added that revocation sends “a very chilling message” to the national security community about the silencing of dissent, he added that “if Mr. Trump believes this going to lead me to just go away and be quiet, he is very badly mistaken,” Jordan Fabian and Morgan Chalfant report at the Hill.

“The way that … Sanders rolled this out was almost in a tone to be threatening to the rest of us,” Hayden said yesterday on CNN’s “The Lead with Jake Tapper,” adding: “in other words, it looks to me like an attempt to make us change the things we are saying when we’re asked questions on CNN or other networks.” Olivia Beavers reports at the Hill.

Trump is “sending a message that he will punish people who disagree with him and reward those who praise him,” Comey stated yesterday evening, saying in a statement posted on Twitter that in a democracy “security clearances should not be used as pawns in a petty political game to distract voters from even bigger problems.” Jaqueline Thomsen reports at the Hill

Former Vice President Joe Biden warned the president that revoking Brennan’s clearance won’t “silence” him, sending a message on Twitter claiming that “in the time I have known him … Brennan has never been afraid to speak up and give it to you straight … revoking his security clearance is an act unbecoming of a President …” Avery Anapol reports at the Hill.

“This is putting personal petty politics ahead of patriotism and national security, end of story,” former Secretary of State John Kerry said in a message on Twitter, adding “you expect this banana republic behavior in the kind of countries that the State Department warns Americans not to travel to, but not at home in the U.S.A.” Avery Anapol reports at the Hill.

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) yesterday praised the move, having previously lobbied Trump in favor of the revocation. Paul claimed in a statement yesterday: “I filibustered Brennan’s nomination to head the C.I.A. in 2013, and his behavior in government and out of it demonstrate why he should not be allowed near classified information,” Michael Burke reports at the Hill.

“We’re in unprecedented territory,” former C.I.A. analyst and special assistant to Barack Obama – Ned Price – commented yesterday, adding that “the president of the United States for the first time has decided to revoke a security clearance on the basis of a critic exercising his first amendment rights to free speech.” Sabrina Siddiqui reports at the Guardian

BRENNAN CLEARANCE REVOKED: OPINION AND ANALYSIS

The decision to revoke Brennan’s security clearance is in reality all about the Mueller probe, with Trump – feeling unable to remove Mueller himself – “striking a blow against his deep-state enemies behind the investigation, and hoping his base sees him as taking decisive action.” Greg Sargent comments at the Washington Post.

Trump should declassify all the documents under subpoena from Congress about the 2016 election, including information illustrating whether top law enforcement and intelligence agencies were abusing their power to influence the outcome, the Wall Street Journal editorial board comments – without such a move, “the revocation of Mr. Brennan’s security clearance looks petty without accomplishing anything useful.”

Little-known career Justice Department official Bruce Ohr has found himself at the center of a right-wing conspiracy theory about the origins of the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. “A lawyer who worked on anti-gang and anti-drug initiatives, he has no direct involvement in the inquiry, but losing his clearance could affect his ability to do his job,” Katie Benner explains at the New York Times.

TRUMP-RUSSIA

Jurors are set to begin their deliberations this morning in the tax- and bank-fraud trial of former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort. The trial is the first to arise from special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, although Manafort’s charges do not relate to Russia or the campaign itself. Katelyn Polantz, Eric Bradner, Marshall Cohen, Liz Stark and Kara Scannell report at CNN.

“When you follow the trail of Mr Manafort’s money it has been littered with lies,” prosecutor Greg Andres said in his closing speech yesterday. Andres accused Manafort of lying and cheating to fund a lifestyle he could not afford, during the period when he worked as a lobbyist in Ukraine for pro-Russian former leader Viktor Yanukovich, Courtney Weaver reports at the Financial Times.

Trump campaign staffer Daniel Gelbinovich allegedly reached out to a number of Washington lobbyists after the 2016 presidential election, asking them to shield Russian oligarch and Putin ally Roman Abramovich from U.S. sanctions. If the reports are true, as confirmed by Gelbinovich, they suggest “another piece of the web of connections between Trump World and powerful Russians,” Betsy Woodruff explains at The Daily Beast.

AFGHANISTAN

A suicide bombing in the Afghan capital of Kabul yesterday targeted an educational center in a Shi’ite and ethnic Hazara neighborhood. The Taliban spokesperson denied the group had any links to the explosion, Pamela Constable and Sharif Hassan report at the Washington Post.

The suicide attack in Kabul killed 34 people and wounded 56, most of whom were students preparing for university entrance exams. Reuters reports.

The Islamic State group today claimed responsibility for the attack on the education center in Kabul via its affiliated Aamaq news agency. The AP reports.

Gunmen launched an attack an intelligence service center in Kabul today, with clashes ongoing, according to Kabul’s police spokesperson Hashmat Stanikzai. The incident comes hours after the attack on the educational center and reports that Afghan government forces have pushed back Taliban fighters in the strategic provincial capital of Ghazni following a large-scale insurgent assault, the AFP reports.

There has been no immediate claim of responsibility for the attack on the intelligence center, Al Jazeera reports.

An extraordinary week of violence in Afghanistan has undermined hope that the U.S. and Afghan governments can negotiate a ceasefire and a new round of peace talks with the Taliban, with a ceasefire to coincide with next week’s Muslim Eid al-Adha holiday looking increasingly unlikely. Craig Nelson, Habib Khan Totakhil and Ehsanullah Amiri provide an overview of the deadly attacks that have taken place across the country at the Wall Street Journal.

“The Taliban’s attack against Ghazni city, and the subsequent fighting in densely populated urban spaces, has again caused terrible suffering to civilians caught in the conflict,” the Head of the U.N. Mission to Afghanistan, Tadamichi Yamamoto said in a statement yesterday, responding to reports that the five days of fighting may have led to around 150 civilian deaths along with hundreds of government and Taliban fighters. The U.N. News Centre reports.

U.S.-TURKEY RELATIONS

A Turkish court yesterday rejected American pastor Andrew Brunson’s appeal for release from detention on charges of aiding the 2016 coup attempt against Turkish President Reçep Tayyip Erdogan. Brunson’s case has been at the center of deteriorating U.S.-Turkey relations, which has seen the two N.A.T.O. allies issue a series of retaliatory tariffs over the past two weeks. Laura Smith-Spark and Isil Sariyuce report at CNN.

“We feel that Turkey and specifically President Erdogan have treated Pastor Brunson … who has done nothing wrong, very unfairly,” the White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters yesterday, warning that “it’s something we won’t forget in the administration.” Caitlin Oprysko reports at POLITICO.

“The tariffs from Turkey are certainly regrettable and a step in the wrong direction,” Sanders also said, adding that the U.S. tariffs against Turkey “were out of national security interest. Theirs are out of retaliation.” Reuters reports.

The Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said his country is prepared to the negotiate with the U.S. as equals regarding diplomatic issues and the ongoing trade dispute, but would not accept any dictating from the White House. Al Jazeera reports.

SYRIA

Russia is working with the Syrian government to facilitate refugee returns and the reconstruction of the country, the Russian defense ministry said yesterday. The AP reports.

A feature on the Islamic State group’s targeting of Assyrian Christians in northeastern Syria is provided by Ben Hubbard at the New York Times.

Syrian rebel groups have been responsible of “forcibly disappearing” activists in areas under the control, including the prominent anti-President Bashar al-Assad activist Razan Zaitouneh, who had called for a civil administration and secular state – a position at odds with the Jaish al-Islam (Army of Islam) group. Zeina Khodr reports at Al Jazeera.

U.S.-led airstrikes continue. U.S. and coalition forces carried out 12 airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria and Iraq between Aug 6 and Aug. 12. [Central Command]

YEMEN

The U.A.E. has paid money to Yemeni tribal leaders to counter al-Qaeda militants in their strongholds, a senior U.S. official acknowledged yesterday, following an Associated Press investigation, which also found that members of al-Qaeda were being integrated into the ranks of U.A.E.-backed forces and being recruited by the Saudi-led coalition in northern Yemen to fight the Houthi rebels. Maggie Michael reports at the AP.

The killing of at least 40 children by a Saudi-led coalition airstrike last week has prompted Democratic members of the House and Senate to probe U.S.’ support for the coalition. Missy Ryan reports at the Washington Post.

An overview of U.S. policy in Yemen and questions surrounding U.S. support for the Saudi-led coalition is provided by Shuaib Almosawa, Ben Hubbard and Eric Schmitt at the New York Times.

The U.S. had no clear goal in its intervention in Yemen leading to two inevitable results: “a litany of war crimes” and U.S. silence in response to the atrocities because they are unjustifiable. Micah Zenko writes at Foreign Policy, arguing that it is “time to phase out Americas support for the Saudi-led component of this civil war, and, more importantly, never again go to war, or support other’s wars, without purpose or objectives.”

IRAN

“With the issue of the nuclear negotiations, I made a mistake in permitting our foreign ministry to speak with them [the U.S.]. It was a loss for us,” the Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said Monday, in remarks quoted by the Khat-e Hezbollah newspaper yesterday, referring to the 2015 nuclear deal and President Trump’s subsequent withdrawal from the agreement in May this year. Reuters reports.

The Trump administration’s campaign of economic pressure against Iran is having tangible effects in Iraq and has put the Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi in a difficult position, with the possibility of creating further instability in the country. Ishaan Tharoor provides an analysis at the Washington Post.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres welcomed the reopening of the Kerem Shalom crossing, according to U.N. spokesperson Stephane Dujarric, who added that Guterres “is encouraged to see that those concerned have responded to calls to avoid the devastating impact of yet another conflict on the civilian population in and around Gaza.” The cargo crossing is a key entry point for food and supplies for Gaza and was closed in response to the launching of incendiary balloons and kites by Palestinians from Gaza into southern Israel, Ilan Ben Zion reports at the AP.

The Israel Defense Force (I.D.F.) yesterday cleared itself of wrongdoing in the controversial events of Aug. 1 2014, publishing the conclusions of its examination into its conduct. Human rights organizations such as Amnesty International have claimed that there is “strong evidence” that Israel perpetrated war crimes on the day known as “Black Friday,” when scores of Palestinians – mostly civilians – were killed in Rafah, Isabel Kershner reports at the New York Times.

“The findings clearly provide that the I.D.F. actions were aimed to serve a clear military purpose – to thwart the abduction of Lieutenant Hadar Goldin and attack the terror organizations in the area” the Israeli Military Advocate General said in a statement. However, the conclusions have provoked condemnation from militant Palestinian Hamas group, with an official commenting that the publication “emphasizes the unfairness of the Israeli inquiry and the need for an international investigation committee to probe Israel’s crimes in Rafah and in all the Gaza Strip and Palestinian lands,” Reuters reports.

The KOREAN PENINSULA

The U.S. Treasury Department yesterday announced new sanctions against three organizations and an individual accused of facilitating shipments to North Korea in contravention of U.S. and U.N. sanctions, with the companies targeted based in China, Singapore and Russia. Alan Rappeport reports at the New York Times.

China’s foreign ministry today said that it does not allow Chinese companies to violate international sanctions on North Korea, Reuters reports.

A Malaysian court ruled today that the murder trial of two women accused of assassinating North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s half-brother, Kim Jong Nam, can proceed. Hannah Ellis-Petersen reports at the Guardian.

An analysis of the reasons why the 1950-53 Korean War has not reached a formal end is provided by Adam Taylor at the Washington Post.

CYBERSECURITY, TECHNOLOGY AND PRIVACY

President Trump has reversed an Obama-era memorandum stipulating in what circumstances the U.S. government can deploy cyberweapons, according to people familiar with the action. Trump signed the order yesterday – turning inside out the classified rules, known as Presidential Policy Directive 20, that had set out an elaborate interagency process that must be followed before U.S. use of cyberattacks, Dustin Volz reports at the Wall Street Journal.

It is not clear what rules the Trump administration is adopting to replace the Obama-era policy and while the reversal was confirmed by a number of current U.S. officials, they declined to comment further, citing the classified nature of the process. Reuters reports.

One administration official commented that Trump’s order was an “offensive step forward,” geared to enable the U.S. to present a more aggressive response when faced with foreign election interference and other threats, in addition to buttressing military moves. National security adviser John Bolton allegedly had sought to reverse the rules when he joined the administration earlier in 2018, Jaqueline Thomsen reports at the Hill.

F.B.I. agents in California and Washington, D.C., have investigated a series of cyberattacks during the past year targeting stem-cell scientist and biomedical research company C.E.O. Dr. Hans Keirstead. Keirstead is a Democrat opponent of Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Ca.), widely seen as the most pro-Russia and pro-Putin member of Congress and a staunch supporter of Trump, Andy Kroll reports at Rolling Stone.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

The U.S. military plans to increase the number of Marines stationed in Norway to 700 and move them closer to the Russian border, the Norwegian defense ministry said yesterday, drawing condemnation from Moscow, which called the plans “clearly unfriendly.” Reuters reports.

The U.S. and Argentina “are very open to a stronger military-to-military relationship in complete transparency,” the U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis told reporters yesterday as he was departing Buenos Aires, but Mattis and his Argentinian counterpart did not announce any specific agreements. Robert Burns reports at the AP.

The Iraqi national and longtime member of al-Qaeda and the Islamic State group, Omar Ameen, has been arrested by U.S. federal authorities and appeared before a federal magistrate judge in Sacramento yesterday. According to prosecutors, Ameen will be extradited and will face trial in Iraq, Matt Stevens and Gabe Cohn report at the New York Times.

The Trump administration’s supportive policy toward Qatar has damaged the standing of the U.S.’ other Arab allies and lessened the possibility that the Qatari administration changes its stance toward the Muslim Brotherhood in the region. Nawaf Obaid comments at Foreign Policy​, arguing that Trump should “reverse […] his reversal and join […] the Saudi-led coalition in applying pressure” on the Gulf nation. 

Filed under:
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).