The Early Edition: October 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.

KAVANAUGH CONFIRMATION

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) yesterday kept up pressure for a vote on the confirmation of Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, with the F.B.I. expected to complete its investigation into allegations of sexual assault by Kavanaugh as early as today. McConnell was vague on the timing of his next steps, retaining flexibility to assuage the concerns of three undecided Republican Senators – Jeff Flake (Ariz.), Susan Collins (Maine) and Lisa Murkowski (Alaska), but adamant that the F.B.I.’s findings will not derail plans for a vote, Kristina Peterson, Natalie Andrews and Siobhan Hughes report at the Wall Street Journal.

“I was very troubled by the tone of [Kavanaugh’s] remarks [at Thursday’s hearing] … the interaction with the members was sharp and partisan, and that concerns me,” Flake commented yesterday, adding: “I tell myself, ‘you give a little leeway because of what he’s been through’ … but on the other hand, we can’t have this on the court … we simply can’t.” Reuters reports.

F.B.I. investigators have completed a first tranche of interviews with four individuals closest to the alleged events, with the White House having given the bureau permission to conduct further interviews, according to the people familiar with the matter.  Devlin Barrett, Matt Zapotosky, Carol D. Leonnig and Tom Hamburger report at the Washington Post.

Attorneys for California Professor Christine Blasey Ford – the first woman to accuse Kavanaugh of sexual assault – yesterday appealed to the F.B.I. to interview Ford and act on investigative leads they have provided for the inquiry. “It is inconceivable that the F.B.I. could conduct a thorough investigation of Dr. Ford’s allegations without interviewing her, Judge Kavanaugh, or the witnesses we have identified in our letters to you,” attorneys Debra Katz and Michael Bromwich wrote to top F.B.I. officials in a letter, Elana Schor and Burgess Everett report at POLITICO.

A growing number of lawmakers from both parties are claiming that a version of the F.B.I.’s report on Kavanaugh – or at least a summary of its findings – needs to be made public. Seung Min Kim reports at the Washington Post.

President Trump mocked Ford at a rally in Missipi last night, delivering a “crude imitation” from her testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee last Thursday. Tom McCarthy reports at the Guardian.

Earlier yesterday Trump indicated that he believes Kavanaugh will be confirmed, although he added: “I want to see what happens with the F.B.I” and that “I don’t think you should lie to Congress … for me that would not be acceptable,” Lauren Gambino and David Smith report at the Guardian.

Top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee Dianne Feinstein (Calif.) said she thought a Friday vote on Kavanaugh’s nomination would not give lawmakers enough time to evaluate the F.B.I. investigation. “I believe it’s too soon,” Feinstein told reporters at the Capitol yesterday, adding “it’s Tuesday and we have to put all the facts together,” Reuters reports.

A 2006 Bar Association rating – judging Kavanaugh “qualified” rather than “well qualified” —has received renewed attention in light of recent questions regarding Kavanaugh’s temperament and truthfulness. Adam Liptak explains at the New York Times.

An overview of the developments surrounding Kavanaugh’s confirmation is provided by Erica Werner and Karoun Demirjian at the Washington Post.

KAVANAUGH CONFIRMATION: OPINION AND ANALYSIS

The limits imposed on the F.B.I.’s probe into Kavanaugh serve as “one more depressing sign that Senate Republicans and the Trump administration are not really interested in finding what did or did not happen between Kavanaugh and Blasey,” David Leonhardt comments at the New York Times.

Prosecutor Rachel Mitchell’s memo to Senate Republicans regarding Ford’s allegations “suffers from obvious analytical flaws” and further, is a “one-sided, misleading memo [which] draws broad conclusions without any foundation, doing a great disservice not only to the reputation of prosecutors and trained investigators everywhere but also to this confirmation process,” Mimi Rocah and Daniel S. Goldman argue at NBC.

What Kavanaugh did in high school now matters, Ruth Marcus comments at the Washington Post, claiming that “first, to the extent that Kavanaugh has misrepresented, dissembled or been otherwise dishonest in his testimony and other public statements … bears on the central question of believability … second, even leaving aside how it might help us decide what to make of the sexual assault allegations, the matter of Kavanaugh’s honesty is an issue in and of itself.”

The argument that even if Kavanugh is innocent of sexual assualt –“what he said at the hearing and how he said it is disqualifying” – is a rich one, Senate Judiciary Committee member Orrin Hatch (R-Utah.) writes at the Wall Street Journal, commenting: “I for one have had enough of this charade … Judge Kavanaugh is a good man and a good judge who doesn’t deserve this treatment or anything like it … what he does deserve is confirmation.”

SYRIA

Rebels in northern Syria who have rejected plans for joint Russian-Turkish patrols of a demilitarized zone claimed yesterday that Ankara had assured them no Russian forces would patrol the area. Leader of Turkish-backed National Front for Liberation (N.F.L.) told journalists that “the request to the Turkish brothers was that this cannot be agreed to … this was a red line that cannot be breached … the last [Turkish] position is that there would be no entry of Russian troops,” Reuters reports.

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu announced yesterday that Moscow has completed the delivery of S-300 air defense systems to the Syrian administration. U.S. State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert said she could not confirm that Russia had delivered the system but commented that it would be a “concern” if it had – as “that would be sort of a serious escalation,” Vladimir Isachenkov reports at the AP.

The number of U.S. diplomats in Syria has doubled as defeat of Islamic State group fighters in the country is near completion, U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis announced yesterday. Reuters reports.

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem said yesterday that the Iranian ballistic missile attack in eastern Syria Monday was part of “legitimate” cooperation between the two nations to combat terrorism. Iran’s Revolutionary Guard said its strikes had killed some 40 Islamic State group leaders, Sarah El Deeb reports at the AP.

U.S.-led airstrikes continue. U.S. and coalition forces carried out 64 airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria and Iraq between Sep. 24 and Sep. 30 [Central Command]

IRAN

France has frozen assets of the Iranian intelligence agency and two agents in response to the alleged Iranian terror plot on French soil June 30, in an attempt to punish Tehran for planning terror activities in Europe – even as France joins other European nations attempting to salvage the 2015 Iran nuclear deal following President Trump’s decision to withdraw the U.S. in May. The freeze will apply for at least six months to two officials—Assadollah Asadi and Saeid Hashemi Moghadam – as well as the internal security directorate of Iran’s intelligence ministry, Matthew Dalton reports at the Wall Street Journal.

French Defense Minister Florence Parly commented yesterday that Iran’s nuclear ballistic program is a threat and the country’s influence within the Middle East region remains a significant concern, Reuters reports.

The International Court of Justice (I.C.J.) today issued an interim order ruling that the U.S. must lift sanctions imposed against Iran that are linked to humanitarian goods and civil aviation. “On humanitarian grounds, the U.S. must remove by means of its choosing any impediment to the free exportation to Iran of goods involving humanitarian concerns,” the I.C.J. ruled in a judgment welcomed by Tehran, Al Jazeera reports.

The U.N. atomic agency (I.A.E.A.) hit back yesterday at Israeli claims that it is failing to police Iran’s nuclear program, dismissing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s criticisms of the agency’s credibility at the U.N. General Assembly last week. I.A.E.A. Director General Yukiya Amano issued a response – without referencing Netanyahu explicitly – stating that the agency uses all relevant information available “but it does not take any information at face value,” Laurence Norman reports at the Wall Street Journal.

“The Agency’s independence in relation to the implementation of verification activities is of paramount importance,” Amano added. The U.N. News Centre reports.

AFGHANISTAN

At least 13 people were killed and 25 others wounded in a suicide attack at an election campaign rally in the eastern Nangarhar province yesterday. The attack has been claimed by Islamic State group, Al Jazeera reports.

“I am outraged by attacks deliberately targeting civilians seeking to exercise their basic right to participate in elections,” U.N. Special Representative for Afghanistan Tadamichi Yamamoto claimed in a statement calling for an immediate end to election-related violence. The U.N. News Centre reports.

The KOREAN PENINSULA

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is set to meet North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in Pyongyang Sunday, in a continued attempt to reinvigorate nuclear talks between the two nations. While in the North, Pompeo is also expected to assist planning for a second summit between Kim and President Trump, Nahal Toosi reports at POLITICO.

Planning for Sunday’s meeting comes as Pyongynag has increased pressure on the U.S., with the North yesterday accusing the Trump administration of demanding too much while offering too few concessions in its negotiations over the terms of denuclearization. Choe Sang-Hun reports at the New York Times.

TRUMP-RUSSIA

Two Department of Justice prosecutors assigned to special counsel Robert Mueller’s ongoing investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election are leaving Mueller’s office to return to previous positions. Spokesperson for the special counsel’s office confirmed yesterday that Kyle Freeny and Brandon Van Grack are leaving Mueller’s probe, both having worked on the criminal cases involving former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort, John Bowden reports at the Hill.

Federal law enforcement officials have referred the 2-year-old email hacking investigation regarding Trump critic and Republican operative Cheri Jacobus to Mueller’s office, according to Jacobus herself. It is not clear what led the F.B.I to conclude that Mueller has jurisdiction over the matter, Ben Schreckinger reports at POLITICO.

N.A.T.O.

U.S. Ambassador to N.A.T.O. Kay Bailey Hutchison yesterday cautioned that the U.S. could be forced to “take out” Russian-developed 9M729 missiles that – if completed – would violate a Cold War-era treaty. “It is time now for Russia to come to the table and stop the violations,” Hutchison told reporters in Brussels, later clarifying that she was “not talking about preemptively striking Russia,” Brett Samuels reports at the Hill.

The U.S. is expected to announce in coming days that it would use its cyberwarfare capabilities on N.A.T.O.’s behalf to counter Russian aggression, according to a senior U.S. official. U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis will attend a meeting of N.A.T.O defense ministers today and tomorrow, Lolita C. Baldor reports at the AP.

CYBERSECURITY, TECHNOLOGY AND PRIVACY

Head of the Department of Homeland Security (D.H.S.) Kirstien Nielsen said yesterday that bureaucratic red tape is weighing down the agency’s efforts to respond quickly to evolving threats. “We have to reorganize the way Congress does oversight for D.H.S … 100 committees is not workable,” Nielsen commented, Olivia Beavers reports at the Hill.

The Trump administration “has already committed itself to irresponsible uses of cyber force that may serve to destabilize everyone’s online infrastructure … including our own,” Josephine Wolff argues at the New York Times.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

The Pentagon said yesterday that it had received mail suspected of containing the deadly poison ricin, enclosed in an envelope that an official said was addressed to U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis. Reuters reports.

Iraq yesterday named Barham Salih as President, who within an hour of his election announced that he had asked former oil minister Adel Abdul Mahdi to form the next government as Prime Minister. Mustafa Salim and Tamer El-Ghobashy report at the Washington Post.

“The Pentagon is letting down women who serve,” Monica Medina comments at the Washington Post, calling out the limits still imposed on women in combat roles

The impact of social media on the battlegrounds of the future is explored by Peter W. Singer and Emerson Brooking in an analysis at Foreign Policy. 

About the Author(s)

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).