The Early Edition: August 17, 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.

BRENNAN CLEARANCE REVOKED

President Trump has told aides that he is keen to strip more security clearances, as part of a growing offensive against individuals who have criticized him or contributed to special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential campaign, according to two White House officials. White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders announced Trump’s decision to revoke former C.I.A. Director John Brennan’s security clearance Wednesday, David Nakamura and John Dawsey report at the Washington Post.

Trump linked the action against Brennan to Brennan’s role in what Trump described as a “rigged witch hunt.” Lawmakers and members of the intelligence community have expressed concern that the president’s act of retribution will potentially have a chilling effect on the U.S.’ law enforcement and intelligence officers, Michael D. Shear and Julian E. Barnes report at the New York Times.

“President Trump’s claims of no collusion are hogwash,” Brennan has shot back in an opinion article in the New York Times, claiming that Trump’s decision to revoke his security clearance is designed to silence his critics. “It is critically important,” Brennan writes, “that the special counsel, Robert Mueller, and his team of investigators be allowed to complete their work without interference – from Mr. Trump or anyone else – so that all Americans can get the answers they so rightly deserve.”

“The only questions that remain are whether the collusion that took place constituted criminally liable conspiracy…” Brennan wrote of the 2016 Trump campaign, adding to his list of questions: “whether obstruction of justice occurred to cover up any collusion or conspiracy, and how many members of ‘Trump Incorporated’ attempted to defraud the government by laundering and concealing the movement of money into their pockets.” Reuters reports.

Top Democrat on the House Oversight Committee Rep. Elijah Cummings (Md.) is demanding an explanation of President Trump’s decision, having written a letter to White House Chief of Staff John Kelly claiming that: “if making ‘outrageous’ statements or engaging in ‘wild outbursts on the Internet and television’ were grounds for denying access to classified information, many of the President’s top aides — indeed, perhaps even the President himself — would be swept into this unprecedented new category.” Other lawmakers, however, have been less sympathetic to Brennan, with Sen Richard Burr (R-N.C.) claiming that “the president has full authority to revoke his security clearance as head of the Executive Branch,” Scott Horsley reports at NPR.

“Former C.I.A. Director John Brennan, whose security clearance you revoked on Wednesday, is one of the finest public servants I have ever known,writes former Commander of the U.S. Joint Special Operations Command William H. McRaven in the Washington Post. McRaven, who oversaw the 2011 raid in Pakistan that killed al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, claims that “I would consider it an honor if you would revoke my security clearance as well, so I can add my name to the list of men and women who have spoken up against your presidency.”

In his letter McRaven says that he had hoped Trump would “rise to the occasion and become the leader this great nation needs;” instead, McRaven claims, “you have embarrassed us in the eyes of our children, humiliated us on the world stage and, worst of all, divided us as a nation.” Rebecca Morin reports at POLITICO.

An overview of the response to the move is provided by Julie Hirschfeld Davis and Michael D. Shear at the New York Times.

Trump’s actions erode democratic norms, the Washington Post editorial board comments, arguing that the real victim of the move is not Brennan himself but “those who may be more vulnerable …who rely on their security clearances for their employability in the private or public sector … [and who] may indeed be intimidated into silence.”

Brennan’s punishment is merely another predictable step, the New York Times editorial board comments, noting that Trump’s “standard operating procedure” is to use “the official levers of government to punish critics and to encourage other detractors to sit down and shut up.”

C.I.A. Director Gina Haspel has remained notably silent during Trump’s attack on a man who served as a vocal supporter of her nomination, Spencer Ackerman comments at The Daily Beast.

TRUMP-RUSSIA

Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) said yesterday that a decision by President Trump to pardon his former campaign chairman Paul Manafort would be grounds for impeachment, as Manafort awaits the jury’s verdict in his trial for bank- and tax- fraud: the first to arise from special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. John Bowden reports at the Hill.

Wife of former Trump campaign aide George Papadopolous – Simona Mangiante – has said that Papadopolous should terminate his plea agreement with Mueller’s office, and refuse to cooperate further with the investigation. “I trusted the institutions until they proved me wrong,” Mangiante told MSNBC yesterday, adding she is now aware of “exculpatory evidences that fully justify him to drop off his plea agreement,” John Bowden reports at the Hill.

Mueller’s team of prosecutors have shrouded themselves in secrecy, unwilling even to disclose their Shake Shack orders. Noah Weiland provides an analysis at the New York Times.

U.S.-RUSSIA RELATIONS

President Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed in principle that Iran should withdraw from Syria at July’s summit in Helsinki, according to a U.S. administration official familiar with the meeting. The two leaders also discussed the Islamic State group, the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, the humanitarian situation in Syria and, according to the official, Trump raised the issue of Moscow’s interference in U.S. elections. Justin Sink reports at Bloomberg News.

The White House national security adviser John Bolton will discuss arms control treaties and Iran’s role in Syria when he meets with his Russian counterpart in Geneva next week as part of follow-up to the Trump-Putin summit, an administration official said yesterday. Jeff Mason and Steve Holland report at Reuters.

AFGHANISTAN

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani visited the strategic city of Ghazni today, meeting with security officials and elders a week after the Taliban launched a large-scale assault that caught the government by surprise and killed at least 100 Afghan security forces and 35 civilians before calm was restored on Tuesday. Amir Shah reports at the AP.

“Our soldiers have fought bravely and we stand committed to bringing peace,” Ghani said in Ghazni today, referring to the Afghan forces’ fight to push the Taliban fighters out of the city and regain control with the help of U.S. air support. Reuters reports.

The U.N. yesterday condemned Wednesday’s “heinous” attack on an education center in the Afghan capital of Kabul, which killed almost 50 people, most of whom were students preparing for university entrance exams. The U.N. News Centre reports.

Rights groups yesterday condemned the suicide bombing of the education center, which was claimed by the Islamic State group. The explosion was one of a series of attacks across Afghanistan, including: the assault of Ghazni, gunfire at an intelligence training center in Kabul and the Taliban’s capture of a military base in northern Faryab province. The AFP reports.

The U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres yesterday stressed the “urgent need for an immediate ceasefire and the opening of talks” between the Afghan government and the Taliban, denouncing the violence in Ghazni and calling on parties to “negotiate a sustainable peace.” The U.N. News Centre reports.

U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis yesterday warned that the Taliban is likely to continue its campaign of violence in an attempt to gain leverage ahead of President Ghani’s possible ceasefire offer, adding that the situation in Ghazni is “much more stable,” that the insurgents did not do more than achieve “a degree of disquiet” and did not have the strength to hold onto territory they capture for brief periods. Robert Burns reports at the AP.

A feature on the challenges facing a new U.S. training unit in Afghanistan is provided by James Mackenzie at Reuters.

The extraordinary violence of the past week shows that Trump’s Afghanistan strategy is failing and the Taliban is winning – particularly in light of reports that the U.S. has been engaged in direct talks with Taliban representatives – Nick Paton Walsh writes at CNN, highlighting the Trump administration’s failure to articulate its goals in the war-torn country.

U.S.-TURKEY RELATIONS

The Trump administration has “much more we’re planning to do” if Turkey do not release the detained American pastor Andrew Brunson quickly, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said yesterday at a cabinet meeting with the president, after which Trump sent a message on Twitter criticizing Ankara for taking “advantage of the United States for many years” and that “we will pay nothing for the release of an innocent man, but we are cutting back on Turkey!” Dion Nissenbaum reports at the Wall Street Journal.

Turkey has threatened retaliatory measures if the Trump administration imposes further sanctions over Brunson’s detention, Al Jazeera reports.

“We can solve issues with the United States very easily, but not with the current approach,” Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said yesterday, referring to the disputes over Brunson and retaliatory tariffs leveled by both countries. Reuters reports.

Trump’s national security adviser John Bolton spoke with the Turkish ambassador to the U.S. on Monday and told him to release Brunson, an administration official said yesterday, adding that Turkey missed a big opportunity to ease tensions by failing to take up a deal over the pastor’s imprisonment. Zeke Miller reports at the AP.

SYRIA

Russian air defense assets have downed 45 drones aiming at the principal Russian base in Syria, the Russian military said yesterday. Russian Defense Ministry spokesperson Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov said that five of drones were shot down in the last three days near Hmeimim air base in Latakia province, Dmitry Kozlov and Sergei Grits report at the AP.

An assault by the Islamic State group on a Syrian army base killed at least 12 soldiers Wednesday. U.K.-based monitor Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that it was the militants’ closest approach to the Deir el-Zour air base since the government recaptured it from the group last year, the AP reports.

Iraq launched an air strike on a gathering of Islamic State group fighters in Syria yesterday, killing members of the militant group who were planning cross-border attacks, according to the Iraqi military. The Iraqi F-16 fighter jets allegedly bombed and destroyed an “operations room” where the militants were meeting, Reuters reports.

The U.S. yesterday welcomed Saudi Arabia’s pledge of $100 million to help stabilize parts of Syria no longer held by Islamic State group – a contribution that comes as the Trump administration looks to reduce foreign aid. “This significant contribution is critical to stabilization and early recovery efforts and comes at an important time in the campaign,” the State Department commented in a statement, although it also called on U.S. partners and allies “to do their share in this effort that helps bring greater stability and security to the region,” Reuters reports.

Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu discussed the return of Syrian refugees to their home nation with his Turkish counterpart Hulusi Akar during talks in Moscow today, with the two officials also discussing the humanitarian situation in Syria as well as the cooperation their respective defence ministries, T.A.S.S. news agency quoted the Russian ministry as saying. Reuters reports.

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]

IRAN

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo yesterday announced the creation of the “Iran Action Group” (I.A.G.) to coordinate the State Department’s approach after Trump withdrew the U.S. from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, explaining that the group’s remit will be “directing, reviewing and coordinating all aspects of the State Department’s Iran-related activity” and will report directly to him. Caitlin Oprysko reports at POLITICO.

The State Department’s director of policy planning, Brian Hook, will lead the I.A.G., and faces the challenge of pursuing Trump’s campaign of pressure against Tehran while keeping European allies – who supported the 2015 deal – on side. David E. Sanger reports at the New York Times.

“We are committed to a whole of government effort to change the Iranian regime’s behavior,” Pompeo said, adding “the I.A.G. will also lead the way in growing efforts with nations which share our understanding of the Iranian threat.” Al Jazeera reports.

The I.A.G. will principally focus on nuclear weapons, terrorism and the detention of American citizens, but will also work to advance the 12 demands set out by Pompeo in a speech in May, Hook said. Rebecca Kheel reports at the Hill.

Hook is expected to step down from his role as director of policy and planning and be replaced by Kiron Skinner, an academic and former Pentagon policy adviser who served on Trump’s transition team. Robbie Gramer and Colum Lynch report at Foreign Policy, providing an overview of his work at the State Department and how he is viewed among career diplomats.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

The terms of a developing deal between Israel and militant Palestinian Hamas group include a twelve-month cease-fire, the operation of a shipping route between Cyprus and the Gaza Strip under Israeli supervision, and Qatari funding for fuel in the enclave, the Hezbollah-affiliated Lebanese network Al Mayadeen reported yesterday. The 48 hours between yesterday and tomorrow will reportedly be decisive for the success of the potential agreement, Jack Khoury reports at Haaretz.

The Egypt-brokered agreement also includes future indirect negotiations between Israel and Hamas for the exchange of prisoners, and humanitarian projects for Gaza, the Times of Israel reports.

“Israel must be tried before the [International Criminal Court],” Hamas spokesperson Hazem Qassem commented yesterday, after the Israel Defense Force’s (I.D.F.) report into the events of “Black Friday” (Aug. 1, 2014) – which saw 135 Palestinians killed by I.D.F. troops attempting to recover a kidnapped Israeli soldier – concluded that the I.D.F. had committed no wrongdoing. Although the killing was met with widespread condemnation, the International Criminal Court was not able to open a fully-fledged war crimes investigation into the violence as one of the court’s criteria is whether a nation is capable of investigating itself and prosecuting its own citizens; “the international community must now take action,” Qassem stressed yesterday, Al Jazeera reports.

The KOREAN PENINSULA

North Korea reiterated its demand today that the U.S. agrees to declare an end to the 1950-53 Korean War, as South Korea’s leader Moon Jae-in hinted that the U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is preparing for his fourth visit to Pyongyang. Pompeo has been struggling to follow up on the deal struck between President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un at their June summit in Singapore, Choe Sang-Hun reports at the New York Times.

“The destructive U.S. tactics [regarding North Korea] … pursued beyond the framework of the U.N. Security Council and its 1718 Sanctions Committee is only able to undermine the progress, which has been made recently towards the settlement,” the Russian foreign ministry announced in a statement yesterday, adding that the U.S. “is not aware” of how the “utmost pressure” on Pyongyang is “fraught with danger.” The comments follow the introduction of fresh U.S. sanctions Wednesday, imposed on a Russian port service agency and Chinese firms for aiding North Korean ships and selling alcohol and tobacco to Pyongyang, Reuters reports.

The return of soldiers’ remains from North Korea must not distract from the real issue – denuclearization – Josh Rogin comments at the Washington Post.

PAKISTAN

Pakistan’s foreign ministry announced yesterday that it has suspended a U.S. military training program for Pakistani soldiers, illustrating the deteriorating relations between the two countries since the U.S. cut military aid to Pakistan this year. The AP reports.

An overview of major attacks claimed by the Islamic State group and its affiliates in Pakistan is provided by the AP.

CYBERSECURITY, TECHNOLOGY AND PRIVACY

President Trump reversed an Obama-era memorandum stipulating in what circumstances the U.S. government can deploy cyberweapons on Wednesday, raising questions about the way the military will carry out offensive digital strikes and whether the relaxation of the rules of engagement will lead to rapid escalations in tensions with foreign adversaries. Dustin Volz reports at the Wall Street Journal.

Most U.S. states have adopted technology to counter election hacking attempts. Christopher Bing reports at Reuters.

Chinese hackers targeted energy and communications firms in Alaska, according to research by the security form Recorded Future. Jacqueline Thomsen reports at the Hill.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

The Chinese military has “rapidly expanded its overwater bomber operating areas, gaining experience in critical maritime regions and [is] likely training for strikes against U.S. and allies targets,” according to a Pentagon report released yesterday, which adds that China’s People’s Liberation Army is undergoing “the most comprehensive restructure in its history to become a force capable of fighting joint operations.” Ryan Browne and Ben Westcott report at CNN.

A military parade through Washington ordered by President Trump has been postponed until 2019, Defense Department spokesperson Col. Rob Manning said yesterday. The announcement follows comments by a defense official that the upper estimate of the cost of the parade was $92m, Courtney Kube reports at NBC News.

The U.N. has invited the Yemeni government and the Iranian-aligned Houthi rebels who control most of northern Yemen to peace talks in Geneva on Sept. 6, a U.N. spokesperson announced today. U.N. Special Envoy for Yemen Martin Griffiths is attempting to negotiate an end to the three-year conflict, which has claimed the lives of 10,000 people and pushed the country into a humanitarian crisis, Reuters reports.

Navy Vice Adm. Craig Faller will be nominated to serve as the next head of U.S. Southern Command, U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said yesterday while visiting Chilean government officials. Robert Burns reports at the AP.

The al-Qaeda operative Ibrahim al-Asiri may have been killed, according to a U.N. report. Al-Asiri was the mastermind behind the attempt to detonate a flight over Detroit on Christmas Day, Barbara Starr, Paul Cruickshank and Ryan Browne report at CNN. 

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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).