The Early Edition: October 11, 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.

JAMAL KHASHOGGI DISSAPEARANCE

Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia Mohammed bin Salman ordered an operation to draw Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi back to Saudi Arabia from his home in Virginia and then detain him, according to U.S. intelligence intercepts of Saudi aides discussing the plan. The intelligence serves as a further piece of evidence implicating the Saudi administration in Khashoggi’s disappearance last week, after he entered the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, where Turkish officials claim a 15-memeber Saudi security team lay in wait to murder Khashoggi, Shane Harris reports at the Washington Post.

State Department spokesperson Robert Palladino announced in a statement yesterday that the U.S. had no advance knowledge of Khashoggi’s disappearance, Reuters reports.

An internal government order requires U.S. intelligence agencies to warn an intended victim if the agency acquires information that a threat of kidnapping, murder, or serious bodily injury is imminent, Editor-in-chief Ryan Goodman notes at Just Security, suggesting that this obligation may explain the disparity between the intelligence reported in the Washington Post article and Palladino’s statement. Goodman suggests that “if U.S. intelligence agencies knew about [the plot to kidnap Khashoggi] in advance, they had a duty to warn him.”

Khashoggi checked his cellphone moments before entering the Consulate, but never read messages sent to him minutes later, according to screenshots obtained by NBC News. The screenshots of WhatsApp messages sent to Khashoggi by a friend in the U.S. appear to corroborate the timeline of his disappearance, providing further evidence that he never left the consulate as the Saudi government allege he did, Josh Lederman reports at the NBC.

President Trump said yesterday that he has talked to officials in Saudi Arabia at the highest levels about the Khashoggi case, commenting “we’re demanding everything …we want to see what’s going on … its a very serious situation for us and for this White House.” Trump commented further that “I want to see what happens and we’re working very closely with Turkey and I think we’ll get to the bottom of it,” Reuters reports.

Trump indicated late yesterday that he is reluctant to halt arms sales to Saudi Arabia if the kingdom is found to be responsible for Khashoggi’s assumed death, believing such a move could be detrimental to the U.S. economy. “We have a country that’s doing probably better economically than it’s ever done before,” Trump told Fox News anchor Shannon Bream, adding “a part of that is what we are doing with our defense systems and everybody is wanting them and, frankly, I think that would be a very, very tough pill to swallow for our country.” Brent D. Griffiths reports at POLITICO.

Nearly two dozen U.S. senators have sent a letter to Trump demanding an investigation into the Khashoggi’s disappearance and threatening possible sanctions against his alleged attackers. The letter was signed by all but one member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and signals the lawmakers’ intent to push for a U.S. response, Nancy A. Youssef and Samuel Rubenfeld report at the Wall Street Journal.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Ergodan has demanded that Saudi Arabia explain what happened to Khashoggi, whom he called a “friend,” Al Jazeera reports.

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence indicated yesterday that he would be open to sending a team of F.B.I. agents to Turkey to investigate Khashoggi’s disappearance, telling radio commentator Hugh Hewitt “I think the United States of America stands ready to assist in any way … the reports that a Saudi Arabian journalist may have been tragically murdered in Turkey should be deeply concerning to everyone who cherishes a freedom of the press and human rights acr oss the globe,” Brett Samuels reports at the Hill.

JAMAL KHASHOGGI DISSAPEARANCE: OPINION AND ANALYSIS

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salaman and Trump are “equally convenient” allies, Michael Hirsch explains at Foreign Policy, pointing to the Trump administration’s unwillingness to call out the “increasingly brazen—indeed unprecedented—Saudi campaign to silence dissenters who might question … Salman’s legitimacy.”

Khashoggi had an unrivalled knowledge of Saudi Arabia, and “stood out as a rare voice of dissent,” Roula Khalaf comments at the Financial Times – arguing “if he has been silenced, it is because his voice was more powerful than even he had realised.”

“If the crown prince’s government does not immediately explain what happened to … Khashoggi … and punish those responsible, it must be punished with sanctions,” the Washington Post editorial board comments.

A timeline tracing what we know of Khashoggi’s disappearance is provided by Anjali Singhvi, Christiaan Triebert, Malachy Browne and Carlotta Gall at the New York Times.

TRUMP-RUSSIA

The Trump campaign argued in a legal filing that whistleblowing website Wikileaks could not be held liable for publishing emails stolen by Russian hackers ahead of the 2016 U.S. election as the website was simply serving as a passive publishing platform on behalf of a third party like other social media providers. Questions about Wikileaks’ publication of thousands of hacked emails are at the heart of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, Stephanie Kirchgaessner reports at the Guardian, citing Just Security Editor-in-chief Ryan Goodman who comments that Wikileaks’ “active role … could significantly change the calculus as to whether they could claim immunity under the Communications Decency Act [Section 203].”

Chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) yesterday expressed frustration that Mueller’s probe has prevented his panel from receiving answers on outstanding oversight questions, pointing to documents related to the F.B.I.’s decision-making during the 2016 election. Johnson allegedly told F.B.I. Director Christopher Wray that he has been “very restrained” in his attempts to view key, classified, documents during a committee hearing, Olivia Beavers reports at the Hill.

California man Richard Pinedo was sentenced yesterday to six months in prison and six months of home detention, having pleaded guilty to providing stolen bank-account information to Russian nationals. The sentence represents the longest prison term to date stemming from Mueller’s inquiry, Aruna Viswanatha reports at the Wall Street Journal.

President Trump’s closest allies on Capitol Hill are still seeking to grill Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein – responsible for overseeing Mueller’s probe – even though Trump himself has appeared to forgive Rosesntein for reports that he discussed wiretapping the president in the White House. Lawmakers – including members of the conservative House Freedom Caucus – are reportedly angry that Rosenstein has not yet testified before Congress about the wiretapping proposals, and yesterday they “lashed out” at House Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte who they say should force Rosenstein to testify, Kyle Cheney reports at POLITICO.

CHINA

The Department of Justice (D.O.J.) yesterday unsealed charges against suspected Chinese spy Yanjun Xu for allegedly conducting economic espionage and attempting to steal trade secrets from U.S. aerospace companies. Xu was extradited to the U.S. on Tuesday from Belgium, where he was arrested in April at Washington’s request – his extradition apparently marking the first time that a Chinese spy has been brought to the U.S. to face prosecution, Ryan Lucas reports at NPR.

China’s far north-western region of Xinjiang has retroactively legitimized the use of internment camps where up to one million Muslims are detained. Chinese authorities revised legislation to allow the regional government to officially permit the use of “education and training centers” to imprison “people influenced by extremism,” despite international criticism of the practice, Lily Kuo reports at the Guardian.

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence’s attempts last week to claim that China is interfering in U.S. elections – and in his particular his equating of Beijing’s cyber-warfare activities with Moscow’s – was “misleading and dangerous,” pandering to the president who is “desperate for any distraction from his own problems with Moscow,” James Palmer comments at Foreign Policy.

The KOREAN PENINSULA

South Korea never considered lifting sanctions against the North imposed over Pyongyang’s sinking of a South Korean warship in 2010, the country’s Unification Minister Cho Myoung-gyon said today. Seoul’s Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha had said yesterday that the sanctions were under review, Reuters reports.

President Trump was apparently angered by Kang’s statement yesterday, making comments from Washington that “they won’t do it without our approval … they do nothing without our approval,” with U.S. officials having vowed to maintain a “maximum pressure” campaign regarding the North until the nation denuclearizes. Benjamin Haas reports at the Guardian.

SYRIA

Turkey has announced that the planned buffer zone in the northwestern Syrian province of Idlib has been cleared of heavy weaponry, as part of an accord reached with Russia to avert a humanitarian catastrophe in the area. Ankara-backed National Liberation Front (N.L.F.) rebel group has confirmed to reporters that it has completed the process of withdrawing its heavy weapons from the province, although experts claim that further challenges still lie ahead for the parties. Al Jazeera reports.

The U.S. said yesterday that it will refuse any post-war reconstruction assistance to Syria if Iran stays in the country, “expanding the rationale for U.S. involvement” in the conflict. Speaking before a pro-Israel group, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo vowed an aggressive push countering Tehran across the Middle East, characterizing Syria as a decisive battleground, and adding that: “the onus for expelling Iran from the country falls on the Syrian government, which bears responsibility for its presence there,” AFP reports.

U.S.-led airstrikes continue. U.S. and coalition forces carried out 70 airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria and Iraq between Oct. 1 and Oct. 6 [Central Command]

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

The period between January and September this year saw 8,050 civilians killed or wounded in Afghanistan, according to the quarterly update on protection of civilians issued yesterday by the U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (U.N.A.M.A.), which found that the use of suicide bombings and other improvised explosive devices (I.E.D.s) by anti-government elements accounted for almost half the casualties. “Every civilian death leaves a family devastated, grieving and struggling to come to terms with the loss, and each civilian injured or maimed causes untold suffering,” Head of U.N.A.M.A.’s human rights office Danielle Bell commented, the U.N. News Centre reports.

Israel yesterday defended its handling of the case of an U.S. graduate student Lara Alqasem, held in detention at the country’s international airport for the past week over allegations that she promotes a boycott against the Jewish state. Isabel Debre reports at the AP.

President Trump talked recently with Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ own Chief of Staff Matthew G. Whitaker about replacing Sessions, according to people briefed on the conversation. Matt Zapotosky and John Dawsey report at the Washington Post.

F.B.I. director Christopher A. Wray yesterday defended the bureau’s handling of an abbreviated background check into Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, telling the Senate Homeland Security Committee that his investigators acted properly amid criticism that they should have more thoroughly investigated sexual assault allegations against the judge – the White House having directed the F.B.I. to conduct a narrow probe that was “specific in scope,” Adam Goldman reports at the New York Times.

Election security groups are raising concerns about emailed ballots ahead of November’s midterm elections, cautioning in a new report that PDF and JPEG ballot attachments sent to election officials could be exploited by hackers, Olivia Beavers reports at the Hill.

Congress must clarify the scope of the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force (A.U.M.F.) if it wants to avert not only a “continuing drift in war powers from Congress to the executive branch” but additionally “the deaths of more American soldiers, an increasing number of whom will die in a war that Congress authorized before they were born,” Just Security Editor-in-chief Steve Vladeck comments at NBC. 

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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).